Colorado Mining Country Greets The President’s Coal Order With Cautious Optimism

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Photo: West Elk Mine Coal 1 | Kathy Welt - GHood
Kathy Welt is an environmental engineer who works at West Elk Mine. “We’re one of the hottest burning, cleanest coals in the nation,” she said.

President Donald Trump is dismantling former President Obama’s climate change legacy. He’s signed an executive order at the Environmental Protection Agency that’s cast as an “energy independence” effort and instructs the EPA to review the Clean Power Plan. Other parts of the order lift restrictions on coal leases on federal land and review a federal rule that reduces methane emissions from oil and gas equipment.

Vice President Mike Pence, in remarks before the president’s signature on the order, declared the “war on coal is over.”

At stake in Colorado is the state’s limited coal mining industry, which produced 18,879,000 short tons in 2015 versus the West’s top producer in Wyoming, with 375,773,000 short tons. In 2016, Colorado saw a decline in production of 40 percent. Coal jobs in Delta County, dropped from 1,200 to just over 200 at the one remaining mine — the West Elk Mine in Somerset. Trump has said that he wants to reopen shuttered coal mines and put the miners back to work. The administration sees the Clean Power Plan as a major barrier to that goal.

To a certain extent, however, Colorado started shifting away from coal in 2010 with a state law known as the Clean Air, Clean Jobs act, which put incentives in place to move the state away from relying on fossil fuels in favor of renewables and natural gas. Those forces have led to a reduction in power plants that rely on coal for generation.

Closures and layoffs have hit the area hard, but there has been a little bit of good news: West Elk has hired about 20 additional workers in late 2016. The mine has also been approved to move to a next step of applying for expansion after years of lawsuits and permit reviews. But overall, the closures and layoffs have hit the region hard.

Photo: West Elk Mine Coal 2 | Mine Outside Sommerset - GHood
West Elk Mine, owned by Arch Coal, is the last operating mine in the North Fork Valley. Bowie #2 and Elk Creek mines have closed.

Still, people like Kathy Welt, an environmental engineer at the West Elk Mine, welcome the executive order, if for no other reason than that it might provide economic stability. But with 29 years under her belt in the coal industry, she’s cautious.

“We’re very hopeful,” she said. “But, hey, we’re the last mine standing [in the North Fork Valley]. And that’s reality, what’s happened to many of my friends and family around here.”

Another reason for caution: West Elk has been in a tug-of-war with environmental groups for years over expansion plans. While Trump’s executive order takes effect immediately, organizations such as Wild Earth Guardians gird for battle.

“It’s been a bad idea to do this. It’s still a bad idea,” said WildEarth Guardian’s Shannon Hughes. “We are going to fight like hell. We’re not just disappointed in this. We’re outraged. And we are going to do something about it.”

Even with an administration that clearly favors fossil fuel extraction, Paonia Mayor Charles Stewart says his town and the state needs to realize the mine industry will never be what it once was.

“We’ve always had basically an economy that was based not only on coal mining,” he said. “Agriculture, outdoor recreation [these have] always been part of the landscape around here. Other areas are going to have to find ways to pick up the slack.”

Editor's Note: This story was updated to correct that data from EIA on coal production was measured in thousand short tons, leaving the original numbers short of their intended measurement.