Western Slope Sees Change With Coal's Shifting Fortunes

Jun 8, 2015

To get to Colorado's North Fork Valley, you drive along the area's namesake, the North Fork of the Gunnison River. Rounding a corner northeast of Paonia, past stands of aspen and cliff bands, suddenly you're driving through a coal mine, complete with two-story high piles of black coal and conveyor belts that stretch over the road. There's two more mines down the river and past that a gorgeous green valley filled with orchards and ranches.

Colorado doesn't have the same strong associations with coal mining as Wyoming or West Virginia, but the industry has formed the bedrock of many small town Western Slope economies. Like many other coal regions, production here is down and the area is changing.

"I think the writing is on the wall that you're not going to retire out of the coal industry anywhere, whether it's a power plant or a coal mine," said Rene Atchley, a building coordinator with the Delta County School District and organizer of mine safety classes at the Energy Tech in Paonia.

She likes to remind people that "every time [a train] goes out of here with a load of coal, someone's getting a paycheck." But now, there's about half as many trains as there used to be. Recently, three of her family members were laid off from two of the valley's three coal mines.

Coal production in the North Fork Valley has fallen about 90 percent since early 2008, according to Energy Information Administration data. This area has been through booms and busts before, but this one feels different. One laid-off miner, Cliff Brewer - himself a 14 year veteran at the Elk Creek Coal Mine - said coal is "a dying industry."

"I don't have a college degree, I make $80,000 a year," he said. "You tell me another job I can get that's going to pay me [that much]. There's none."

There are two major reasons for coal's decline. First, regulations. When the Clean Air Act was amended in 1990, the utilities in the Eastern United States, like the Tennessee Valley Authority, began switching to Western U.S. coal because of its lower sulfur content. For a long time, the TVA bought 70 or even 80 percent of the coal mined in Colorado's North Fork Valley. Now it's down to 15 percent.

The TVA is closing a lot of its older coal plants, so the utility is buying less coal, period. In addition, the coal plants that are still open all have pollution controls, or scrubbers, that allow them to burn higher-sulfur local coal produced in the Illinois Basin.

"We'll be able to play a little with the blends that we use," said TVA spokesman Scott Brooks. Decisions about where to buy coal "change a little when we [the TVA] are able to burn a higher sulfur content."

Brad Harding, the director of Delta County Economic Development - where the North Fork Valley is located - points out that the decline of coal production is, "an example of how macroeconomic events and decisions at the highest level can filter down to a small community."

A coal train heads west outside of Hotchkiss, Colo.
Credit Theo Stroomer / Special to Inside Energy

The second major reason contributing to the switch away from coal is cheap natural gas, much of it coming from hydraulic fracturing. Natural gas emits about half as much carbon dioxide as coal when burned. That is increasingly important under the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed Clean Power Plan, which is designed to reduce the carbon emissions from the electricity generation sector. Indeed, the EIA predicts that coal generation will fall even further [.pdf] under that plan.

There have been proposals to open parts of the North Fork Valley to drilling, something coal miners feel decidedly mixed about. On one hand, natural gas is just what's undermining the coal industry. On the other hand, those jobs pay really well.

"We cannot ignore industries that are going to be job providers to this area," former coal miner Cliff Brewer said. "There's nothing here. Trust me I've looked."

"I don't have a college degree, I make $80,000 a year. You tell me another job I can get that's going to pay me [that much]. There's none."

Solar is the one energy industry here that's doing very well in the valley. Just down the road from the coal mines, Solar Energy International runs a solar installer training center.

"We're growing so quickly I'm running out space for people," said Executive Director Kathy Swartz.

Interest in SEI's classes is exploding, but that doesn't necessarily translate into more high paying local jobs.

"Definitely no," Swartz said, shaking her head and laughing. "The coal industry is unique like that. In the solar industry, if someone were to work locally, probably that $25,000 to $30,000 annually would be a decent job."

People are still moving to the North Fork Valley, but it's often not for high-paying jobs. They're here for the mountains, the quiet, the burgeoning local food scene. Increasingly, people like Rene Atchley — the one whose family has been in coal for decades — don't see themselves reflected in the newcomers.

"And that's OK," she said. "If that's what they want, that's great. If they've figured out how to live on that $7 to $10 an hour and shoot up a prayer when they have to go to the hospital, I'm more for them than not."

The organic farms and wineries are great, but for Atchley the most sustainable thing about this valley is coal.

Inside Energy is a public media collaboration, based in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota, focusing on the energy industry and its impacts.