Between A Rock And A Hard Place


Colorado coal mining sits at a crossroads. Skyrocketing demand and potential environmental regulations may force coal insiders to make difficult decisions about the industry’s future—and the fate of the 2,200 Coloradans who venture deep into the earth to mine the black gold. 


November 2007


Coal mining is one of the last bastions of American blue-collar work. The industry still conjures images of hardworking, salt-of-the-earth men who bring little more into the mine each day than muscle, a lunch pail, and a prayer. Americans love to love coal miners—even if they are blissfully unaware of them until a tragic accident splashes across CNN. But like many things born of the industrial era, the coal industry and its miners face an uncertain future in a white-collar-friendly 21st century consumed with global warming.

Of course, the coal industry has always persevered, surviving the arrival of natural gas, the rise of rigorous safety and environmental regulations, unionization and miner strikes, and the near-daily operational challenges for which mining is infamous. It has endured because of global economic pressures and because, quite frankly, Americans have historically been more concerned with the balance of their energy bill than the state of the environment.

But times change. Al Gore’s 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth bolstered growing support for the issue of climate change—one that has been thriving in Colorado but needed a shot in the arm around the rest of the country. Consumers now buy low-energy light bulbs. Grocery stores eschew plastic and paper for cloth bags. Toyota can hardly keep up with demand for its hybrid Prius. Neighbors chastise each other if they don’t see the purple recycling bin outside on trash day. King Coal should be worried.

Environmentalists argue that coal’s only real virtue is that it’s cheaper than the other available resources. And according to almost anyone, there are virtually no scenarios that will see coal getting cheaper still. Lack of railroad infrastructure, deeper mining, more expensive miner paychecks, costly emissions regulations—all of these things could lead to more expensive coal. And more expensive coal is undesirable coal, especially when burning the fossil fuel is responsible for more than a third of the country’s carbon emissions. The public has been happy to ignore coal’s dark side because it’s cheap, but will we continue to love it if it becomes expensive? Maybe not.

The Colorado coal industry is as vulnerable as any other, but it has one clear advantage over the black rock from Illinois or Ohio or West Virginia: It’s cleaner. Born from freshwater peat bogs—as opposed to saltwater marshes in the East—Colorado’s coal is a low-sulfur, low-ash, low-mercury, high-energy fossil fuel. Colorado coal, and Western coal in general, has been in high demand from power plants that need to meet Clean Air Act regulations. However, being cleaner may not matter if the price of coal skyrockets, as natural gas has, or if all Eastern power plants simultaneously install scrubbers, potentially lessening the need for cleaner coal. While scientists—and the coal industry itself—say it’s possible to make coal into a zero-emission fuel using a wide array of methods, almost none of these is in use today. But here in Colorado, there are nascent signs of institutional change: Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy has proposed the construction in Brush, Colorado, beginning in 2009, of the nation’s first power plant that converts coal to a cleaner-burning gas and captures carbon emissions.