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Avon’s Roberts leads charge for ‘just transition’ as Colorado coal towns see power plants shut down

May 1, 2022, 12:42 pm
Xcel’s coal-burning Hayden Generating Station in Routt County (Courtesy of Xcel Energy).

Lawmakers in the Colorado General Assembly are poised to pass another round of funding for the state’s efforts to ensure a “just transition” for coal workers impacted by the shift to clean energy — and are again winning bipartisan support for the workforce and community grant programs that Republicans once decried as “Orwellian,” “egregious” and “offensive.”

House Bill 22-1394, which passed the House of Representatives this week, would allocate an additional $15 million in funding to the Office of Just Transition, an agency within the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

Two-thirds of that amount would go directly to the Coal Transition Worker Assistance Program, providing coal workers and their families with funds that could cover apprenticeship and retraining programs, child care services, housing assistance and other expenses. The remaining $5 million would go towards economic development programs for coal-dependent communities.

It’s the second $15 million appropriation made by the Legislature to the Office of Just Transition in as many years, following the passage of House Bill 21-1290 last session — and advocates for the state’s clean-energy push promise there will be plenty more support to come.

“This won’t be the last time a bill of this nature is going to come before you,” House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar, a Democrat from Pueblo and one of the bill’s lead sponsors, told the House Transportation and Local Government Committee in an April 26 hearing. “We are going to continue to need to help these communities, help these workers, as we transition out of coal.”

HB-1394 passed with strong bipartisan support in committee and won approval from the full House on Thursday with a 51-12 vote, cementing a shift among some Republicans who bitterly and unanimously opposed the Office of Just Transition’s creation a few years ago.

Republican Rep. Perry Will of New Castle, who represents several coal-dependent communities in northwest Colorado, voted against the 2019 legislation that established the office, but has since become a vocal advocate for more funding. He praised HB-1394 in a brief House floor debate Wednesday.

“This is a much-needed bill,” Will said. “I appreciate the $15 million. I know we need more than this, but we’re pecking away at it a bite at a time, and this is very important to the communities I represent.”

Other Republicans continued to make clear that they had only grudging support for the state’s just-transition efforts.

“I’m really rather conflicted with this, because one of the best ways to transition would be to not force the transition,” Rep. Andres Pico, a Colorado Springs Republican who has denied the scientific consensus on the effects of climate change, said prior to his vote for the bill in committee.

“That said, we’re well into this, and since the state is forcing the transition, our responsibility to handle the issues that it raises is something which is justified,” Pico continued. “I will be a yes, but I sure wish we didn’t have to be doing this.”

Colorado’s six remaining coal-fired power plants are by far its largest individual sources of climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions, and their closure has been a top priority for state policymakers working to achieve the state’s emissions-reduction goals.

Earlier this week, officials reached a settlement with Xcel Energy, Colorado’s largest electric utility, to accelerate the retirement date of Comanche Generating Station’s Unit 3 in Pueblo, the last coal plant scheduled to be operated in the state. Comanche 3 will now close by Jan. 1, 2031 — putting the end of coal-powered electricity generation in Colorado less than a decade away.

After passing the House, HB-1394 was introduced in the Senate and assigned to the Business, Labor and Technology Committee.

“Towns like Hayden, Oak Creek, and Craig will be able to use this just transition funding to invest in projects that diversify rural economies, incentivize new energy jobs, and provide workers with supportive career service,” Rep. Dylan Roberts, a Democrat from Avon and bill sponsor, said in a statement. “This is the large investment in rural Colorado that our transitioning communities deserve, and I am thrilled this bill is moving forward with strong bipartisan support.”

Editor’s note: This story first appeared on Colorado Newsline, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

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