Coal Continues to Take Ugly Center Stage in West

Yes, President Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline for now, giving us some hope that perhaps our government might be able to make the hard decisions needed to confront global warming and move beyond fossil fuels.

But then again, it’s hard to see this as real progress when the overall challenge we face seems to show no sign of diminishing anytime soon.  I’m talking about coal, of course, which as the EPA noted last week, continues to be the number one contributor to global warming in the U.S.

Here in the West, the challenge of coal seems to be mounting almost daily, with the industry digging in, literally, to keep mining and burning.  Just in the last two weeks, WildEarth Guardians has played defense on a number of new proposals, including:

Of course, there are some good signs here and there.  The latest Energy Information Administration electricity monthly report confirms that in 2011, all of Colorado’s new electricity generators were wind and solar, while all of the state’s retired generators were coal.  The retirement was a 100 megawatt coal-fired boiler at Xcel Energy’s Cherokee power plant in North Denver, which was spurred by the State’s Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act.

At the same time, however, a good friend of mine, Leslie Glustrom with Clean Energy Action, pointed out that although 16 gigawatts of new wind generation in Colorado are in the “queue,” all of it has been put on hold by Xcel until 2028.  And while the company intends to take 1,268 megawatts of coal-fired capacity offline by 2017, the company has also been seeking rate increases to keep 2,229 megawatts of coal-fired capacity operating to 2035 and beyond.

Adding to this, the company intends to repower some of its coal-fired power plants, including Cherokee and Arapahoe, both in Denver, with natural gas, yet another fossil fuel.

I’ve already pointed out the dangers of simply replacing coal with natural gas in Colorado.

We’ve beat back the XL pipeline, but in the end, it seems like we’re being beat back even more by one coal project after the next here in the West.  It doesn’t help that the Obama Administration continues to make excuses for endorsing ramped up coal mining in the Powder River Basin and elsewhere in the West.

So let’s savor the setback of tar sands, but not forget that unless and until we can rein in coal, especially in the West, our progress is fleeting, at best.

4115934072_a7ae06578f_b

In 2009, WildEarth Guardians called on Colorado Governor Bill Ritter to stop clowning around when it comes to confronting climate change and power past coal.  It’s high time to call on President Obama and others to do the same.

Xcel Hedging Bets on Imaginary Coal

The cost of coal is going up, but rather than find a cleaner, more affordable path forward, Xcel Energy is hedging its bets that it can simply pass along these rising costs to ratepayers.

But at the company’s Hayden power plant in northwestern Colorado, betting on coal seems to be defying all odds.  In fact, they seem to be betting it all on a new coal mine that doesn’t exist.  All this just exposes just how tenuous the future of the Hayden power plant really is and how Xcel’s betting is likely to backfire big time.

In testimony filed yesterday before the Colorado Public Utilities Commission (PUC), Xcel Vice President Karen Hyde revealed that “coal supply is more expensive than what we are currently paying at Hayden…” (see Hyde testimony at page 18).  Boy was she right.  According to supporting testimony from Xcel employee Susan Arigoni, by 2018 the cost of coal will be nearly 70% higher than previously estimated (see Arigoni testimony at page 12).

This testimony is significant because it comes as Xcel is trying to convince the PUC that retrofitting the Hayden power plant with modern air pollution controls is cheaper than shutting down the power plant altogether.

In other words, if Xcel wins, they get their retrofits and ratepayers get stuck with the bill.  If Xcel loses, the Hayden plant goes down.

It’s a pivotal moment, and although the odds seem even, if not stacked in favor of Xcel, in reality, the odds are much worse for the company and its Hayden plant.  Here’s why.

To begin with, although Susan Arigoni claims that a growing coal export market is fueling price increases, the reality is prices are going up because Hayden’s supply is dwindling.

Here’s the pickle:  The coal mine that currently  fuels the Hayden plant, the Twentymile mine, is slated to play out by 2013.  And although there is another coal mine nearby, the ColoWyo mine, that could fuel the plant, that mine is not only slated to play out by 2017, but the remaining production is already under contract.

Put another way, the Hayden power plant will have no coal after 2013.

So how has Xcel proposed to get out of this pickle?  They’ve proposed to lock into a long-term coal supply contract from Peabody Energy’s Sage Creek coal mine.  As Susan Arigoni testified:

The Peabody interests of developing a structure for a long-term contract that would underpin Sage Creek development align with Public Service’s need for a long-term, reliable supply to support the long-term operation of the plant. Public Service was able to balance its lack of competitive options with Peabody’s interests to achieve a transaction that provides a long-term supply for Hayden.

Of course, there’s only one problem.  The Sage Creek coal mine doesn’t yet exist (check out the map of the “proposed” coal mine).  It hasn’t been constructed, hasn’t even permitted, and doesn’t even have the necessary federal coal lease.

So the long-term contract is, for all intents and purposes, make believe.  There is no coal.

And it’s truly questionable whether there will be coal.  Although the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is proposing to issue a federal coal lease to Peabody for the Sage Creek mine, the proposal so far has been riddled with flaws.

As WildEarth Guardians commented last September, the BLM’s proposal makes a mockery of the environmental review process.  The agency went so far as to claim the environmental impacts associated with burning the coal would be speculative, yet it’s been clear from day one that Sage Creek was intended to fuel the Hayden power plant.

To say the least, the BLM’s proposed lease is vulnerable.  And that means the Sage Creek coal mine is far from a done deal.

Which also means the future Hayden power plant is far from certain.  And yet, as the latest filings show, Xcel seems committed to risking it all on coal.  In this case, imaginary coal.

It’s a dangerous dirty energy gamble that seems destined to leave Xcel, and in turn its ratepayers, broke.

Hayden Station
Every year, the Hayden coal-fired power plant contributes to 6 deaths, 10 heart attacks, 120 asthma attacks, and other adverse health impacts, all at a cost of $46 million.

Representative Diana DeGette Votes Against Protecting People from Coal Ash

[Editor’s Note:  Read the latest ClimateWest update on this post here.]

Colorado Representative Diana DeGette voted on July 13 for a bill that, in the words of Massachusetts Representative Ed Markey, would give a “green-light pass for utility companies to dispose of their waste without regard to public health or the environment.”

According to the official roll, Representative Diana DeGette was one of six Democrats who joined in voting with Republicans to undermine efforts to protect the public from toxic coal ash.

Put simply, H.R. 2273 prohibits the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating coal ash.  Even though coal ash is known to contain toxic compounds, H.R. 2273 would actually classify coal ash as “beneficial” and ease disposal standards.

Whatever Representative DeGette was thinking in casting her vote, one thing is clear:  she threw the public under the bus on this one, apparently in an effort to appease coal industry lobbyists.  Maybe it’s not a surprise.  Her former Environmental Legislative Director, Steven Plevniak, is now a lobbyist with Xcel Energy, which of course is the largest utility in Colorado and burns more coal in Colorado than any other utility.  Not surprisingly, Steve is listed in Xcel’s records as a lobbyist on coal ash issues (see p. 4 of Xcel’s latest lobbying report).

So, perhaps chalk this up to Representative DeGette doing a little favor for Steve and Xcel.  If that’s the case, shame on you Representative DeGette, your constituents deserve much, much better.