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Colorado Mining Companies Say Markets Unpredictable

The Climax mine near Leadville plans to reopen this year.
Photo by Kirk Siegler
The Climax mine near Leadville plans to reopen this year.

Mining company executives and industry leaders from around the West are in Denver for their annual meeting this week. Like many industries, mining has struggled during Colorado’s sluggish economic recovery; though some sectors are doing better than others due to volatile global energy prices.

SIEGLER: If you had to pick a single word to sum up the overall mood here at the 114th annual National Western Mining Conference…you might choose uncertainty. A lot of people are talking about it in the halls and at the podiums here.  What will the market be in the coming months for everything from Colorado-mined coal to rare earth metals, and how can companies plan and know whether to expand, add jobs or open new mines?  We’ll start with coal.

RICHARDS: We do want to aggressively market Colowyo coal.

SIEGLER: This is Duane Richards.  He heads a subsidiary firm of Westminster-based Tri State Energy, which recently bought the Colowyo Mine in northwest Colorado.  It’s one of three large mines that supply a coal-fired power plant that feeds northern Colorado’s electric grid.  The company estimates there’s still at least a billion tons of coal to recover there.  Richards says the coal is low-sulfur and would be attractive for export markets, because he pending EPA emissions regulations here at home could lead to a further drop in domestic demand.

RICHARDS: It’s having a big impact and creating a lot of uncertainty in the marketplace today.

SIEGLER: Demand for coal is also down due to a mild winter across much of the US.  Meanwhile coal companies in this state are also bracing for the effects of a new state law requiring Xcel Energy to retire or retrofit its Front Range coal plants to natural gas. It’s a move that drew wide support from conservation groups championing natural gas as a cleaner-burning fuel.  But there have been far fewer fans when it comes to another so-called bridge fuel - nuclear.  At least that’s how Steve Antony sees it.  

ANTONY: I think all of us in our various commodities are sometimes victimized by the media and by groups that oppose what we do for a living.

SIEGLER: Antony is CEO of the Lakewood-based Energy Fuels, which is proposing to build what would be the nation’s first new uranium mill since the Cold War.  Officials in Montrose County and at the state health department have approved the facility – planned near the tiny town of Nucla in southwest Colorado.  But just last week federal regulators intervened, siding with conservationists who say the mill hasn’t gotten adequate public scrutiny.  Antony vowed that the mill would still be built, as soon as possible.

ANTONY: We’re totally confident our license will be upheld, but again it’s this 11th hour politics that plague the development of our project.

SIEGLER:  So according to the industry, there’s uncertainty when it comes to uranium, uncertainty when it comes to coal. But what about rare earth metals?  The stuff that’s used in everything from steel to your iPhone screen?  

AKCAY: We’re hiring throughout all of Colorado.

SIEGLER: This is Kaan Akcay.  He’s a staffing specialist with Climax Molybdenum, which owns mines near Idaho Springs and Leadville. Over the past few years as China’s economy ballooned and contracted, the company waivered on plans to reopen its long shuttered mine near Leadville.  

AKCAY: The lights will be turned on soon.

SIEGLER:  Akcay says Climax has already hired three hundred of the 350 or so expected workforce atop Freemont Pass.  

AKCAY: There’s such a tradition and history with Climax and Leadville and it’s coming and going, it’s going to be much meaner and leaner this go-around with 350 people as opposed to 3,000 people but it’s still exciting.

SIEGLER:  No word on exactly when mining will resume.  Ackay would only say sometime this year.  The National Western Mining Conference wraps up today.

Kirk Siegler reports for NPR, based out of NPR West in California.
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