More coal is rolling out of the pro-Trump Western Slope, but is it adding up to any jobs?
The coal carved from deep under pristine forests in the last surviving West Elk Mine is bound for other countries to be burned. Environmentalists, worried about global warming, are steamed. But laid-off Colorado miners see the trains as a signal that they might get back to work.
Those train cars reflect a roughly sevenfold increase from two trains a week last year, when statewide coal production hit record lows. Colorado mines produced about 12.8 million tons of coal in 2016, down from 18.7 million the year before, according to Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety data. Since 2004, coal production is down 67 percent. Coal jobs have dwindled to about 1,200 statewide from 2,118 in 2003, when Colorado ranked among the top U.S. coal producers.
Even coal industry executives acknowledge the rise of wind, solar and gas as cheaper, cleaner alternatives that employ more workers and questioning whether a comeback is possible.
Yet the rumbling, clanging and flashing lights as coal trains snake down the valley promise otherwise — music to many in western Colorado, where coal once sustained a solid middle class. Tourism hasn’t paid as well, and residents are resisting a full embrace of the marijuana boom. Voters here strongly backed Trump after his Oct. 18 campaign rally in a Grand Junction airport hangar, where he promised to put coal miners in Colorado back to work.
“My husband and I love that man. It’s going to be a good year,” Hotchkiss Inn manager Kris Bartol said, sharing her cellphone videos of Trump. She and her husband, Andy, miss the income they once had from mining contractors who rented a block of rooms.
Over the past few months, the number of unemployed miners trekking into the Compliance Staffing Agency, which helps mines fill positions, has tripled to 15 a week, CSA president Steve West said. “Some are just not finding anything else. They’re saying that, with Trump, they might find work now. They think the industry might be coming back.”
Starting her sedan in Somerset, coal miner’s daughter Myrna Ungaro lamented how, after two mines closed last year, “this valley died, the shops, the restaurants.” Yet now the loaded coal trains soothe and inspire her in her own search for work, Ungaro said. “This is the way it’s supposed to be.”
There are indeed signs. West Elk manager Jim Miller has hired a few miners, mostly temporary, bringing the workforce to about 220. Corporate parent Arch Coal emerged from bankruptcy in December. Federal forest managers, pressed by Colorado officials, finalized an exception to the nation’s rule for protecting “roadless” forests, clearing an obstacle for the West Elk Mine to expand and produce more coal.
Arch Coal spokeswoman Logan Bonacorsi confirmed contracts locked through the first half of this year supplying “international markets.” Arch and West Elk officials wouldn’t say more.
Any expansion is likely to face resistance.
“Mining and burning more coal will mean more smog, more toxic mercury in the air, more needless methane emissions and more climate pollution,” EarthJustice attorney Ted Zukoski said. “We’re going to continue to oppose coal mining that puts our forests, wildlife and climate at risk.”
Colorado Mining Association president Stan Dempsey said Trump’s drive to dismantle environmental regulations will be crucial. “We’ve bottomed out. We’re seeing a stabilization in Colorado. We’re seeing a slow increase in production. If we don’t see any more boneheaded policy decisions, such as Colorado’s 2010 Clean Air Clean Jobs Act, then coal is going to make a strong recovery.”
But energy industry analysts — pointing to the overall drop in production and the federal and state efforts to close coal-fired power plants — contend coal still will fade in favor of the cleaner, cheaper alternatives. Even as Trump posed at the White House with coal miners and ordered dismantling of the Clean Power Plan to cut heat-trapping carbon pollution, a technology shift away from coal continued with more plants shutting each month.
A Chinese government curb on coal production in China, driven by air pollution and domestic economy concerns, drove up the price of coal to make U.S. exports profitable, said Clark Williams-Derry of the Seattle-based Sightline Institute energy think tank.
“What you’re seeing now is just a temporary uptick due to Chinese policy and higher natural gas prices. Be cautious,” Williams-Derry said. “We’re now at the mercy of Chinese policymakers. All the optimism in the world isn’t going to reverse the tide of this shift.”
Colorado coal-fired power plants still will close as scheduled, and uprooted coal miners will need help, Gov. John Hickenlooper said after White House officials announced they would kill the national Clean Power Plan.
“He cannot force people to spend more money to mine more coal,” Hickenlooper said.
Here in the North Fork Valley, Oxbow Mining president Mike Ludlow, a 44-year coal industry veteran who ran the now-closed Elk Creek Mine, contends the current export surge will at most slow the pace of decline. If any coal mine can survive competition from cheaper clean sources, he said, it would be the West Elk, “a really, really well-run mine.”
“But, even with Trump, I don’t see any utility trying to permit a new coal-fired facility. When wind is blowing, that is low-cost energy. Utilities are going to want to take low-cost energy,” he said. “With the coal for power plants being shut down, it will never come back.”
State agencies have pumped about $4 million in grants to help unemployed miners and their families adapt, said Delta County Administrator Robbie LeValley, who has championed economic diversification. Hickenlooper touts faster internet connections as a key, and about 20 former miners were hired to install fiber-optic cables in Hotchkiss and other towns, LeValley said.
Hundreds of laid-off miners moved out of the valley to work in other states, she said. “Some of their families are still living here. A couple went back to school.”
County officials are “certainly optimistic” to see increasing numbers of coal trains and hope for steady employment of about 250 miners if the West Elk can expand, LeValley said. “The capacity that the West Elk has certainly will benefit our area. But we’re still down by two of three mines. And the full suite of environmental regulations and production constraints are still in place.”
Railroad transport costs, she added, weigh more heavily on Arch Coal now because other companies that once shared costs have gone out of business.
Since 1864, coal mining in western Colorado has built communities and helped create a shared identity, pride and purpose. Miners could afford to buy homes. Miners’ families had lifestyles including recreation using snowmobiles, boats and all-terrain vehicles. As many as six mines operated in the valley. Over the past two years, more than 1,000 jobs disappeared. Longtime residents speak of an emptiness.
The sound of coal trains rolling past the Living Farm Cafe in Paonia “is comforting,” server Casey Branson said. “Honestly, I would be OK if all of the coal jobs came back.”
Even if they don’t, a feeling that Trump will do everything possible puts people who have been hurting in a more positive mood.
“I’m not sure how much one president can do,” said Wanda Buskirk, office manager for the Ragged Mountain Fire Protection District, whose husband worked in a coal mine and now has leukemia.
Trump may not be able to fully deliver on his promise to reverse coal’s decline, she said. “There are still two other branches of government involved. But I hope so.”