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Mining association applauds ruling on power plant challenge

An association that represents in part the coal mining industry in Colorado has praised a ruling allowing a legal challenge to plans to close down and convert to natural gas units at three coal-fired power plants on the Front Range.

Stuart Sanderson, the president of the Colorado Mining Association, said the ruling by the Colorado Supreme Court will give Western Slope communities and coal miners that could be affected by the plans “their day in court.”

The ruling allows the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado (AGNC) to proceed in its lawsuit against the Colorado Public Utilities Commission.

While the AGNC appeals were challenged after they were filed in Routt County, the Colorado Supreme Court agreed the appeals could be transferred to courts in either Garfield or Denver counties.

The case is now expected to proceed in Denver District Court.

An association of cities and counties in Garfield, Mesa, Moffat, Rio Blanco and Routt counties, the AGNC filed a lawsuit in 2011 challenging the commission ruling approving emission reduction plans for Xcel Energy as part of the Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act enacted the year before.

The PUC approved Xcel Energy plans to close a total of five units at three coal-fired power plants in Denver and Boulder, convert two more units from coal to natural gas, construct a new gas-burning unit and install additional emission controls at power plants in Hayden and Brush.

Under the combination of steps in the plans, Xcel will close down 551 megawatts of electric production, install new emission controls on 951 megawatts of production and switch from coal to natural gas on an additional 460 megawatts. That means the plan will involve about 25 percent of the 7,800 megawatts Xcel generates or purchases in Colorado.

Proponents of the state legislation and the plans hailed what they described as a proactive effort to reduce emissions now rather than wait for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to impose more strict federal regulations in the future. The legislation requires Xcel to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions from its power plants by 70 percent to 80 percent by 2017.

The natural gas industry also praised the plan as a way to reduce power plant emissions while potentially creating Western Slope jobs.

The Colorado Mining Association opposed the legislation and PUC ruling, however, because of the potential effects on the coal mining industry in the state. While most Colorado coal is shipped out of the state, closing down or converting power plans from coal to natural gas could affect West Slope mining jobs, Sanderson said.

If the PUC-approved plan is implemented, Sanderson said it could result in a decline in Colorado coal production of up to 4 million tons a year. That change could in turn translate into job losses as well as declining tax revenues for local governments and school districts.

The AGNC also challenged the PUC on the basis that two members of the commission — then chairman Ron Binz and Matt Baker — should have  been disqualified from the proceedings because records later revealed they negotiated elements of the ruling with Xcel.

Sanderson charged that the PUC, Xcel and natural gas industry “have gone to great lengths to shield their actions from judicial review through various procedural maneuvers.”

He added: “AGNC deserves much of the credit for their efforts to see that justice is done and that the PUC’s decisions can be reviewed by a court of law.”

Sanderson said the plan approved by the PUC ultimately would cost Xcel electricity customers more than $1 billion.  The PUC ignored alternatives that would have cost consumers millions of dollars less by retrofitting the existing coal-fired power plants with additional emission controls.

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