When former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter was elected to his first and only term in the governor’s mansion in 2006, Colorado generated more than 70 percent of its electricity by burning coal — the majority of it from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.
Ten years later, despite the “New Energy Economy” Ritter championed for four years, Colorado still generates more than 60 percent of its power by burning coal, and only 11 states burn more coal for power — led by top coal-producing states like West Virginia, Kentucky and Wyoming.
Colorado still ranked as a top-10 coal-producing state as recently as 2014, although its production has plummeted by 50 percent in the 10 years since Ritter first took office. But that’s mostly because natural gas is so cheap and so abundant, Ritter recently told The Colorado Statesman.
“You can see that in the [coal-fired power] plant retirements, and it’s not about Obama’s war on coal, it’s about the availability of cheap natural gas,” said Ritter, pushing back against the idea that his policies or those of the current administration in Washington are killing Colorado coal.
“[Natural gas] is the primary reason this is happening, but I do think that because we’ve relied heavily on coal-fired generation to build the middle class, to build our nation’s wealth, that we also have a responsibility in a just transition toward those coal communities to do all we can to find ways to support them, to retrain that workforce, to try and bring different kinds of jobs, different kinds of industries to those communities,” Ritter said.
“A Just Transition” is one of the final chapters of Ritter’s book “Powering Forward,” which came out in March with a great deal less fanfare than current Gov. John Hickenlooper’s book “The Opposite of Woe.”
Ritter said the state has an obligation to help hard-hit coal-mining communities on Colorado’s Western Slope, where high-paying jobs have been steadily slashed over the last several years.
“I included a chapter about the just transition, meaning that it is fair to say the transition is happening,” Ritter said. “There’s still a lot of coal that is delivering power, and quite frankly, coal-fired energy is responsible for building our manufacturing prowess as a nation and for building our middle class, but there is a transitioning away from coal.”
Market forces, not government regulation, are the biggest reason for that transition, Ritter emphasizes, pointing to technological innovations in the oil and gas industry that have made cleaner-burning natural gas a more logical choice for electricity generation.
However, when Ritter was first elected in 2006, Colorado generated 23 percent of its electricity by burning natural gas. That number was down slightly to 22.5 percent in 2015, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Renewables sources — mostly wind — have jumped from 6 percent in 2006 to nearly 18 percent in 2015.
And fossil-fuel advocates and critics of Ritter and his political allies will tell you that conversion of 10 percent of the state’s power generation from coal to renewables has played a huge role in the demise of coal locally. They point specifically to a bill signed into law by Ritter in 2010 called the “Clean Air Clean Jobs Act.”
“I wouldn’t say that [Clean Air Clean Jobs] was my signature policy,” Ritter said. “I don’t think I have a signature policy. I signed 57 different bills that related to energy specifically, and that might have been the capstone. It was sort of the last big thing we did on the clean-energy front. But there were a lot of other things that we did. Signing a bill that was a 30 percent renewable portfolio standard bill was an important thing to have done that same year.”
Both the 30-percent renewable standard by 2020 for publicly owned utilities and Clean Air Clean Jobs were ultimately supported by the state’s largest utility, Minnesota-based Xcel Energy, and Clean Air Clean Jobs saw the shutdown of coal-fired power plants or conversion to natural gas, which burns about 50-percent cleaner than coal in terms of heat-trapping carbon emissions.
“Most importantly, we were making this transition to a 30-percent renewable standard and this transition to natural gas as well in large part because of environmental concerns and concerns about carbon in the air, but we found ways to protect consumers and rate-payers inside that work,” Ritter said, citing a recent Xcel report showing Clean Air Clean Jobs cost the average rate-payer five cents a month per year, or 60 cents a year, due mainly to cheap natural gas.
The thing about natural-gas drilling is that, unlike underground coal mining in remote corners of the state, hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells occurs in subdivisions on the Western Slope and near schools, parks and homes up and down the state’s populous Front Range.
The state’s drilling boom has led to a “fracktivist movement” that’s disrupting former oil and gas geologist Hickenlooper’s current book tour and pushing hard for ballot measures this November that would severely curtail fracking in neighborhoods.
“My take is that if you’re going to be in a state like Colorado where there’s going to be hydraulic fracturing, you need a really strong set of regulations, you need a culture of compliance by the industry, and you need a strong process for enforcing the regulations in case there are lapses,” Ritter said. “If you have those, then you should actually be able to conduct hydraulic fracturing.”
And if and when natural gas prices come up, there will be more drilling around the state, not less. The U.S. Geological Survey recently made its second largest assessment of potential shale and tight gas ever, upgrading the Mancos Shale on Colorado’s Western Slope from 1.6 trillion cubic feet in 2003 to 66 trillion cubic feet.
But even if Colorado completely reverses itself in coming years and starts generating the majority of it electricity by burning natural gas, there’s still a state mandate to get 30 percent of its power from renewable sources such as wind, solar and biomass by 2020 for publicly owned utilities like Xcel, which account for the majority of the state’s power.
And under SB252, signed by Hickenlooper in 2013, the rest of the state’s power generation — provided primarily by the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association to Colorado’s 22 rural electric coops — must be 20 percent renewable by 2020. Currently, the U.S. EIA reports that just 17.89 percent of the state’s electricity came from renewables in 2015, with 14.1 percent of that in the form of wind.
Asked if the political debate over energy has changed much in the 10 years since he was elected or the five years since he left office, Ritter said it’s slowly coming around.
“There’s still a debate about the role that humans play in causing climate change, but with all of this there has been a greater interest in trying to find some common ground,” said Ritter, who currently serves as the director of the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University. The Democrat adds that many Republicans are doing significant things to drive the conversion to natural gas and renewable sources of energy, and that many Republicans are benefiting from his New Energy Economy.
“All of those wind farms that have been built have been in the Eastern Plains, and while that’s a place where it would be a red, Republican-dominated area of the state, they’ve benefited in a very serious way from the economics of that,” Ritter said. “The same with natural gas.”
But many in the state’s coal-mining communities accuse both the Ritter and Hickenlooper administrations of working in lockstep with the Obama administration to shut down the coal industry. It’s become a key campaign issue in the 3rd Congressional District, which includes most of the Western Slope’s coal towns.
Incumbent CD3 U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, a Republican, blames his Democratic challenger, former state Sen. Gail Schwartz, for teaming up with Ritter to pass a legislative agenda that has crippled Colorado coal-mining communities.
“It is a well-documented that Schwartz’s policies have destroyed jobs and communities in Western Colorado and continue to do so,” Tipton’s campaign said of the approximately 1,000 coal industry jobs lost in CD3’s Delta County.
Schwartz counters that she supported Clean Air Clean Jobs because the state had to do something about dirty coal-fired plants on the Front Range and because less than 2 percent of the coal being mined in the Western Slope’s North Fork Valley was being burned in Front Range power plants, so she felt the impacts would be minimal.
Like Ritter, Schwartz points to market forces, especially cheap and abundant natural gas and increasingly affordable renewable sources, as the main reasons the coal industry is faltering.
“I carried probably the lion’s share of [Ritter’s] policy when I was [in the Legislature], and I felt that these were opportunities for the state,” Schwartz said. “Not only did we make a commitment to the opportunities to develop Colorado’s renewable resources, but also those technologies and those industries helped us during the downturn. I think what Ritter should really be credited for is diversifying Colorado’s economy.”
These days Ritter is working with officials from 13 Western states on the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman has challenged in federal court, against the wishes of Hickenlooper.
And while Hickenlooper’s book has stirred discussion of his possible future in a higher office, as either vice president or in Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton’s cabinet, Ritter won’t talk about his own aspirations.
Ritter, who was rumored to be in the running for Secretary of Energy during Obama’s second term, makes it clear that a Clinton White House is critical to the implementation of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which would reduce carbon emissions from power plants by 30 percent from 2005 levels.
“I think the future of the Clean Power Plan is very much in jeopardy if there are Republican majorities in the House and the Senate and a Republican president,” Ritter said.