Commentary

In Colorado, Denial Over Coal Threatening Clean Energy

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President Trump is making good on his promises to prop up the fossil fuel industry and demolish the progress we’re making to combat climate change.  In doing so, he’s undermining the development of a thriving clean energy economy and denying the reality of coal’s decline.  Nowhere is that more apparent than in the State of Colorado.

Spurred by Trump’s orders, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke lifted a moratorium on the sale of public lands for new coal mining. The moratorium was put in place in 2016 amid mounting scandal over the management of publicly owned coal.

At the time, the Interior Department was selling coal at below cost, cutting the mining industry breaks on royalty payments, failing to ensure adequate reclamation of mines, and refusing to address the climate consequences of authorizing new coal mining. The Interior Department’s Inspector General, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, and members of Congress all called for reforms, underscoring the need for a pause on new coal sales.

More than 40% of all coal produced in the U.S. is owned by all Americans and managed by the federal government. Most of it is here in the American West underlying our public lands, including in Colorado and other States.

Given this, the need for reform hasn’t been some political triviality—it’s been a matter of justice for the American public.

In March, however, Zinke threw justice out the window.

Not only did the Interior Secretary lift the 2016 moratorium on the sale of public lands for new coal mining, he abandoned all commitment to reform. Instead, he’s proffering denial.

He’s denying climate change. According to recent reports, federal coal is linked to 11% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, making it a root contributor to global warming in this country.

He’s denying that taxpayers are being ripped off. According to a recent report by the Headwaters Economic, because of loopholes and write-offs, the coal industry is effectively paying only 40% of what it owes taxpayers.  In Colorado, the coal industry is actually demanding that the State and federal government refund royalty payments!

But most importantly, Zinke is denying the reality of the coal industry.

Since 2014, the business has been collapsing. Companies have over-leveraged their investments, competition from natural gas and renewable energy has become heated, and the increasing costs of declining production have all led to one of the worst years on record for U.S. coal producers.

Here in Colorado, industry’s downward spiral has been on stark display on so many fronts. Production has hit lows not seen since the 1970’s and have declined nearly 70% from a high in 2004. Two of the state’s largest mining companies, Peabody and Arch, both filed for bankruptcy in 2016. In the last year, three of the State’s 10 producing mines shut down.  Dramatically, the Elk Creek Mine in the North Fork Valley was demolished last April.

The decline of coal reflects the rise of cleaner, more affordable sources of energy and the economies they support.

It’s telling that while Colorado’s coal mines now employ a little over 1,000 workers, the State’s clean energy sector supports 62,000 jobs, including 7,000 in the solar industry and 6,500 in the wind sector. Another 1,500 new jobs are projected for 2017.

One could argue that Zinke’s efforts to boost the coal industry are nothing to sweat for anyone who cares about the climate and clean energy. If only it were true.

In reality, the Administration is embracing denial to boost fossil fuels. Whether it’s denial of climate change, denial of public justice, or denial of the reality of the industry, Trump and Zinke are bent on using deceit and political games to boost coal and decimate clean energy.

Just consider that while Zinke has rolled back climate protections to give the coal industry a major boost, he’s done nothing at all to foster, promote, or otherwise open the door for renewable energy development.  So much for an “all of the above” energy approach.  For Zinke, it really is fossil fuels above all else.

Energy policy based on denial and deceit jeopardizes the reality of Colorado’s successful new energy economy. That’s why Governor Hickenlooper and the State’s Congressional delegation need to stand up to the President and Interior Secretary Zinke. It’s why they should be calling to reinstate the moratorium on new coal sales and for reforms to the way our publicly owned coal is managed.

This isn’t a matter of whether you support coal, it’s a matter of not denying reality. Clean energy in Colorado depends on it.