State Sen. Schwartz courts miners after vote
DENVER – State Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, is scrambling to recover goodwill with 1,000 coal miners in her sprawling district after she risked alienating them with a vote last week.
Schwartz, who has evolved as a champion of clean energy and carbon reduction, voted for a bill that encourages replacing coal with cleaner-burning natural gas in three power plants in the Front Range. The legislation was opposed by the Colorado mining industry, including coal mining firms and their employees in the North Fork Valley, which is over McClure Pass from Marble.
“It was a tough vote for me,” Schwartz acknowledged Thursday.
The mines account for 40 percent of the annual coal production in Colorado, more than $450 million in sales and roughly 1,000 high-paying jobs.
She met with about 60 miners prior to the vote. “My objective was not to go to have a debate,” she said. Instead, she went to listen. Their concerns prompted her to introduce an amendment to the bill which requires the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to “consider” the economic impact of the replacement of coal with natural gas at the power plants.
“I think it’s less of an impact than they anticipated,” Schwartz said.
Her research indicates only 4 percent of the coal from the North Fork Valley mines around the town of Somerset and elsewhere in Delta and Gunnison counties stays in state. It is high-quality coal that gets shipped east to mix with lower-grade coal.
Therefore, she said, she doesn’t feel the legislation has much potential to eliminate many jobs in her district.
Aspen’s representative in the state House wasn’t so sure. Rep. Kathleen Curry, an unaffiliated legislator from Gunnison, voted against the bill because she feared it would make North Fork Valley miners and their families “collateral damage.”
The Colorado Mining Association opposed the bill on the grounds that it will result in production losses of at least 2.6 million tons of coal. That is equal to 10 percent of annual production, said Stuart Sanderson, president of the Colorado Mining Association. Some of the losses will be from the North Fork Valley mines but most will be from northwest Colorado, he said.
Schwartz, who is in what is anticipated to be a tough re-election battle this year, tried to smooth relations with North Fork Valley miners this week. She issued a press release that said Gov. Bill Ritter’s management plan for 4.2 million acres of roadless lands in the state will preserve coal-mining jobs in her district.
Ritter’s roadless proposal makes 20,100 acres available for the expansion of existing coal mines in the North Fork Valley. Mining companies will be allowed into roadless areas to make surface improvements necessary for access to coal reserves. The temporary roads will eventually be eliminated and the roadless character will be restored, according to the state.
Ritter’s proposal was submitted to the federal government for review. It faces widespread opposition from environmental groups. While Schwartz is often aligned with conservation groups, she praised the governor’s roadless plan.
“I’m pleased this new roadless rule expansion plan includes the need to expand our coal mines,” Schwartz said in a prepared statement. “Now that these mines in the North Fork Valley have access to vent and capture methane, they will be able to expand and continue to develop their reserves. This helps secure the viability of the mines and the jobs in the North Fork area.”
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