Gov. Bill Ritter urged lawmakers Tuesday to back a framework for retiring or retrofitting coal-fired power plants along the Front Range, arguing it would likely be cheaper in the long run than reacting to a series of expected new emission rules from the federal government.
Ritter said the costs of maintaining existing coal plants, which are at least 40 years old, would also grow if the federal government puts a pricetag on carbon. He said changes are coming regardless of whether the state decides to act now.
"It's only a question of whether we do it smarter," he told members of the House Transportation and Energy Committee.
The committee voted 10-1 to endorse the bill, sending it on to the appropriations committee to review its costs. The only lawmaker to vote "no" was Rep. Randy Baumgardner, who represents six counties in western Colorado.
The legislation would require the state's two investor owned utilities, Xcel Energy and the smaller Black Hills Corp., to cut emissions by at least 70 percent at some of its power plants over the next seven years. They would have to give priority to replacing them with ones fired by cleaner burning natural gas but they would also be able to consider using efficiencies and other cleaner energy sources, such as burning beetle-killed trees, or renewable energy. Coal-fired plants that capture the carbon dioxide they produce would also be an option but that's usually more costly than burning natural gas.
All the plans would have to be approved by the Public Utilities Commission, which would consider how much they would would increase electric bills, particularly for low-income customers.
Xcel Energy estimates that the piecemeal rules expected from the Environmental Protection Agency would lead to a 4 to 6 percent increase in rates but said rates could increase by less than that if the state adopts its own comprehensive plan to cut ozone, mercury and haze.
Ritter said he started talking to Xcel about the proposal more than a year ago and this winter also involved environmentalists and natural gas companies in the conversation.
Environmentalists are concerned about the brown cloud of pollution in the Denver area as well as pollution obscuring views in Rocky Mountain National Park and harmful mercury emissions. Natural gas companies see a new market for their product in Colorado, avoiding the expense of shipping it to bigger population centers elsewhere.
The coal industry, however, is fighting the legislation, saying it could cost jobs in western Colorado mines and in power plants, which are more labor intensive than gas-fired plants.
Much of Colorado's coal is exported to other states but industry lobbyist Dianna Orf said two mines near Paonia, West Elk and the Elk Creek mine, both supply a portion of the coal used by power plants in Denver and Boulder, the ones likely to be affected by the bill.
She acknowledged that federal rules could usher changes pushing the state away from using coal but she said the current bill, rushed to a hearing the day after it was introduced, didn't take a broad enough view of all the options.
The bill is sponsored by Reps. Judy Solano, D-Brighton, and Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, and Sens. Bruce Whitehead, D-Hesperus, and Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction.