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Republicans Reverse Course, Help Push "Just Transition" for Coal Workers

Craig Station, a coal-fired power plant in Moffat County.EXPAND
Craig Station, a coal-fired power plant in Moffat County.
Jimmy Thomas / Flickr
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In May 2019, as Democrats in the Colorado General Assembly advanced a bill launching the state’s efforts to ensure a “just transition” for coal workers impacted by the shift to clean energy, Republicans were incensed.

In a tense, late-night floor debate over House Bill 19-1314, which created a new Office of Just Transition in the state’s labor department, Senate Republicans called the legislation “laughable” and “offensive.” It was an “insulting and egregious bill.” Senator Bob Gardner, a Republican from El Paso County, advised Democratic lawmakers traveling to the communities impacted by the bill to “leave town pretty quickly,” because “your welcome might be pretty short.”

“I’ll tell you what my people think,” said state Senator Bob Rankin, a Republican who represents several coal-dependent communities in northwest Colorado. “They don’t want the government retraining them and telling them what they’re going to do, and setting up some committee to feel their pain. They just want you to tell them when they have to move out of this state, and go to Wyoming. That’s what they want. They do not want this bill.”

Now, two years after Democrats passed HB-1314 over unanimous GOP opposition, many Republicans are singing a different tune.

Rankin has joined his Democratic colleagues as a lead sponsor of House Bill 21-1290, which would give the Office of Just Transition an additional $15 million in funding. In the House, one of the bill’s lead sponsors is Representative Perry Will, a Garfield County Republican whose district includes the coal-fired Craig Generating Station, as well as several coal mines.

The bill would allocate $7 million in funding for a new “coal transition worker assistance program,” to be spent on apprenticeship and training programs for workers and their families. It also includes an additional $8 million for implementation of the state’s Just Transition Action Plan, which was finalized last year by an advisory committee created by HB-1314 and outlines strategies for economic development grants and other investments in affected communities.

“If we can do some economic development in these communities and keep these families in those communities, it’s a huge boon for this state,” Will told lawmakers on the House Business Affairs and Labor Committee in a May 6 hearing. “Anything we can do to help out these communities, I’m all for. I think this is a great bill, and it’s something we definitely should be funding.”

Wade Buchanan is the director of the Office of Just Transition and, for now, its only employee; the office will hire three more full-time employees later this year thanks to a small funding boost in the 2021-22 state budget. Buchanan told lawmakers that the additional funds from HB-1290 will allow his office to get a head start on planning for the most disruptive impacts of the clean-energy transition.

“This transition is happening quickly,” Buchanan said in testimony in support of the bill. “We have a little bit of time before the big impact hits, but we have an opportunity with this bill to get ahead of the curve.”

In an email, Rankin wrote that he had previously opposed the Office of Just Transition because he “believed its creation was simply to provide political cover for an overly aggressive attack on fossil fuel jobs.”

“Perhaps this stimulus funding will actually find its way to help damaged communities,” Rankin said. “I would still prefer that the funds be provided directly to the towns and counties rather than through the state government grant process.”

Other GOP lawmakers who opposed HB-1314 and have since voiced support for just-transition efforts, including Will, did not respond to interview requests. But with millions of dollars in state funding poised to flow into their communities, their public statements are a far cry from the skepticism they expressed two years ago.

“I have a lot of trust in Mr. Wade Buchanan and the Just Transition Office,” Will told his fellow lawmakers last week. “I wouldn’t have been a sponsor on this bill if I didn’t think the funding would be used wisely.”

Coal has steadily declined as a source of Colorado’s electricity over the last two decades, falling from 76 percent of the state’s total generating capacity in 2001 to 44 percent in 2019, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That share is expected to decline rapidly over the next decade as utilities, pursuing a series of greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets as part of global efforts to fight climate change, shift to cleaner generation sources like wind and solar.

Only one of Colorado’s seven remaining coal plants is currently scheduled to operate beyond 2030, and by that date, the shift to renewables in Colorado and beyond will likely winnow the state’s six remaining coal mines down to just one or two, Buchanan told lawmakers. In all, these mines and power plants currently employ about 1,914 people, according to state data. The commercial property values associated with the coal industry also make up a large portion of some communities’ tax bases.

In 2019, Republicans attacked the legislation establishing the Office of Just Transition from multiple angles. Some GOP lawmakers, including Rankin, said that without a large appropriation of funds, the bill was an “empty promise.” Democratic supporters countered that the office and its advisory committee first needed to be authorized to study and gather community input on benefit programs and funding sources.

Many other Colorado Republicans harshly criticized the intent of the bill with or without funding attached, often expressing their opposition while denying the scientific consensus on climate change. During a floor debate on the bill, Senator Paul Lundeen of Colorado Springs claimed that a transition to clean energy defied “the actualities of physics.” The office became a frequent target of scorn for Republicans beyond the General Assembly, even featuring Senator Cory Gardner’s unsuccessful reelection campaign. “Don’t worry, comrade, the Office of Just Transition is here for you,” he joked at one 2019 event. “It is socialism on full display.”

Now, however, Republicans are among those leading the charge for more funding for the office. State Representative Matt Soper, a Republican from Delta, wrote on Facebook in April that funding “should be in excess of $100 million.” During negotiations over the state’s 2021-22 budget, Soper introduced several unsuccessful amendments to boost the office’s budget, picking up support from GOP lawmakers including Representative Tonya Van Beber, who last year called the office “positively Orwellian.”

Democrats and environmental groups who advocate for just-transition efforts agree that more substantial funding will need to be diverted to coal-dependent communities as plant and mine closures accelerate in the coming years.

“This is seed money, it’s the beginning, it’s the down payment,” Sam Gilchrist, Western campaigns director with the National Resources Defense Council, said in testimony in support of HB-1290. “It will help alleviate some of the economic uncertainty that could stifle development in the future.”

Just two years after the creation of the Office of Just Transition proved so controversial, HB-1290 appears likely to be passed by bipartisan majorities in the Legislature. After several hours of testimony, the House Business Affairs and Labor Committee gave its initial approval to the bill in a 10-3 vote on May 6.

While some Republicans have become enthusiastic supporters of the state’s just-transition efforts, however, others made clear that the concept still leaves a bitter taste in their mouths.

“I normally would not support a bill like this, as far as role of government and use of taxpayer money,” Representative Terri Carver, a Colorado Springs Republican, said prior to last week’s vote. “If we, through our policy — whether you agree with it or not — are the cause of that economic devastation, then it seems to me that we have a moral duty to try to alleviate some of that suffering.”

Representative Mike Lynch, a Republican from Larimer County, echoed that sentiment while also voting to advance the bill.

“I really don’t think the government has a role of responsibility to workers,” Lynch said. “I don’t think that’s the government’s job — unless helping them is the result of policies that the government caused.”

Begrudging or not, the growing support for just-transition efforts reflects how rapidly climate politics and policymaking have evolved in recent years. As recently as 2019, Republicans argued it was too soon to be making plans for a world without coal.

“We’re not there yet,” Will told his fellow lawmakers on the floor of the House in 2019, urging them to vote against HB-1314. “We’re not there with renewable energies. We want to keep these people employed.”

A little over two years later, Will had a much different message.

“This transition thing’s real,” he told his colleagues last week. “It’s upon us. It’s not in the future, it’s upon us now.”

This story was originally published on Colorado Newsline.

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