Climate Change Debate in Denver Pits Coal Miners vs. Skiers

By Jennifer Oldham and Mark Drajem | July 30, 2014
close-up portraitm worker man mine

Coal miners took on skiers, and environmentalists dueled with business groups as the public debated sweeping rules from the Obama administration to combat global warming in a nationwide series of hearings yesterday.

At the one in Denver, the ski industry said that without the proposed curbs on carbon emissions from power plants, climate change will result in less snow, fewer tourists and lost jobs. Mining companies countered that the plan would raise electricity costs, resulting in shuttered factories and trouble for states’ economies.

“The environmental extremist war on coal is really a war on prosperity,” said John Kinkaid, a commissioner in Moffat County, which borders Wyoming and Utah in northwest Colorado and is home to miners.

Participants began to line up early to testify on proposed rules that would trim emissions nationwide by an average 17 percent through 2030. Dozens of Sierra Club members in sea green T-shirts reading “I (heart) Clean Air” were among more than 1,600 people who signed up to speak at hearings in Denver and three other cities this week: Washington, Pittsburgh and Atlanta.

Inaction on Climate Change Costs Economy: White House

The EPA’s plan to cut carbon pollution from power plants, released June 2, is among the most complex in agency history, promising to rewrite a century of electricity generation and distribution precedent. The proposal includes separate goals for states based on the agency’s determination of what each could do to generate electricity with less carbon pollution and to use it more efficiently.

Denver Hearing

Inside the Denver regional office of the EPA, economic trade offs for the rules were debated at an 11-hour session. By mid-morning, the agency said the downtown building had reached its capacity, with people coming from as far away as California, Iowa, Texas, Wyoming, Montana and other states to testify.

“We increasingly rely on snow making to ensure we are open from Thanksgiving to mid-April,” Matthew Hamilton, sustainability director at Aspen/Snowmass, which runs four areas, said in an interview. “Without that, we wouldn’t be able to offer top to bottom skiing.”

Ski industry leaders said the EPA’s 645-page U.S. blueprint is necessary to slow changes in climate that cause drier winters, keeping skiers away. Colorado state legislators tied global warming to the state’s worst flood in a century last September.

Frost Free

Global warming is causing an increase in frost-free days, forcing Colorado ski areas that serve 12.6 million skiers a year — more than any other U.S. state — to shorten their season.

In a radio ad that ran 260 times in the Denver area in the week before the hearing, the Sierra Club and Snowriders International encouraged residents to testify, saying “as the snowpack disappears, so do our jobs and communities.”

Officials from Colorado counties with mines that make the state the nation’s ninth most productive coal-producer said the plan would lead to job losses in a region that hasn’t recovered from the recession.

“Coal means families can buy homes and put food on the table — mining companies are the largest taxpayers in Moffat and Routt counties,” Kinkaid said.

Economic Impact

Mines in western Colorado contribute $428 million a year in economic impact, he said.

Colorado isn’t just a coal state; it also has the nation’s sixth-largest reserve of natural gas, and the use of that fuel is set to expand under the EPA’s plan. The EPA based its carbon targets on states switching from coal to natural gas for electric generation, and outside analysts say that could result in a boom in gas-rich states such as Pennsylvania and Texas.

“Oil and gas resources have great potential to help this country in terms of spurring economic growth, enhancing our energy security and improving our air quality,” Janet McCabe, EPA’s top air pollution regulator, told a luncheon in Washington yesterday. Gas can also help with greenhouse-gas emissions, she said.

The EPA effort is part of a larger climate plan unveiled by President Barack Obama last year. Obama has made curbing carbon pollution central to his second term, and getting the EPA rules approved is a cornerstone of that effort.

Methane Leaks

Separately, the Energy Department yesterday announced incentives to cut methane leaks from natural-gas processing and transmission, an effort that environmental groups say falls short of necessary rules to curb those leaks.

Methane emissions from natural-gas production, processing, transportation and distribution are drawing increased scrutiny as the boom in production using hydraulic fracturing has increased use of natural gas. Methane is 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, although less prevalent.

The one fuel sure to lose if the EPA plan goes forward is coal.

At the public hearing at the EPA’s headquarters in Washington, St. Louis-based Peabody Energy Corp., the nation’s largest coal producer, said the plan would unnecessarily cause a jump in electricity prices and drive out U.S.-based manufacturers.

“Climate change is an issue we need to deal with in the right way,” Fred Palmer, the company’s top regulatory official, said. “The only way to approach it is with technology, not with command-and-control from Washington.”

Carbon Capture

Instead of the EPA’s requirements, Palmer said that Congress should provide funding for research in systems to capture carbon emissions from smokestacks, and the federal government should provide the permits and insurance needed to get utilities to store that carbon underground.

While industry groups warned of the risks of curbing coal, the White House released a report yesterday detailing the risks of not acting.

And at the Denver hearing, Colorado state legislators said warmer temperatures contributed to the state’s worst flood in a century last September.

“We were hit by a flood we’ve never seen the likes of before,” said state Representative Matt Jones, a Democrat from Louisville, Colorado. “Two thousand homes were destroyed and we had $3.3 billion in flood damage.”

“That’s our future,” he said. “Our infrastructure is at stake.”

Singing, Chanting

During the Washington hearing, dozens of activists carrying American flags and miniature windmills sang, chanted and posed for photographs outside EPA headquarters.

The Climate Reality Project offered free Ben & Jerry’s ice cream scoops to those who followed a simple process: file a comment to the White House supporting the rule, sign a petition for the plan and tweet that support to the world.

Inside the building, the author of failed legislation to impose a nationwide cap-and-trade program in the U.S., backed the EPA plan as something that would be both a way to heal the planet’s “fever” and to create more clean-energy jobs.

Massachusetts Democratic Senator Ed Markey, then a congressman, sponsored the measure that passed the Democratic- controlled House in 2009, and never came up for a vote in the Senate.

“When America sets strong safeguards, millions of jobs are created, Americans are healthier and our air and water are cleaner,” he said.

The hearings continue today in Atlanta, Washington and Denver, while ones in Pittsburgh begin tomorrow.

Among those scheduled to testify today in Washington are Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican opposed to the plan, and his guest, Jimmy Rose, who sang his country tune “Coal Keeps the Lights On” on a television talent show last year.

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Latest Comments

  • August 4, 2014 at 3:58 pm
    InsGuy says:
    They should start by banning the use of snow-generating machines until the carbon footprint can be reduced to zero.
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