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The Pity Party Regarding Moffat County Coal

A video about coal mining in northwestern Colorado suggests the people of Craig, in Moffat County, are having a pity party and they want everyone to join in on their self-inflicted suffering. Craig’s primary economic industries are coal mining, coal-fueled power generation, and tourism from primarily hunting and other seasonal outdoor sports. It is an economy that locals admit lacks diversity and resiliency.

Craig, Colorado:  Moffat County’s Only Significant Population Center

This month, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association announced that it would close all three coal-fired power units by 2030 and close down the Colowyo coal mine that supplies the three power plants south of Craig. Not surprisingly, local people are upset and many are turning their anger towards government regulations that they claim are killing their community.

This carefully crafted pity video published in 2015, by the American Energy Alliance, an energy industry-funded non-profit operated and directed by former House Republican staffers, is being used by at least one area resident¹ to use the news of the closings to renew anger at the government:

[SEE: The Perfect Storm Over Craig, Colorado]

The Ugly Reality of Coal Mining

Modern history lacks any examples of coal-mining dependent communities that have eventually gone on to become a great economic success. It just doesn’t happen. Mining companies have a reputation of ripping the coal out of the ground, shipping it away, selling it, reaping vast fortunes, and walking away from their mess. The coal industry has a legacy of broken workers, broken agreements, and always placing owner profits over every other consideration. In their wake is typically a shell of a community that is left in a cycle of poverty.

But history and context are typically not what local people care about or understand. They only see that a company is willing to come to their isolated community and offer them a Devil’s Bargain for jobs. Local communities are usually burned by the deal but rather than accept the consequences, many adopt the tactics of the tobacco farmers when the public became aware of the dangers of smoking. They scream, “It’s all the government’s fault.”

The Facts

Change Has Been Coming:  In the last decade, many aging coal-fired plants have been converted over to natural gas. The fuel is less expensive and cleaner than coal. Tri-State has stated that the decision to shut their Moffat County operations was a business decision based on operational costs.

The Road to Nowhere

The Craig Power Plants Units Already Slated For Closure:  Two of the three units were already slated to be retired. Unit One was to be closed in 2025 and Unit Two was to be retired in 2039. Unit Three was only four years younger than Unit One but no retirement date had been established. All three Units were facing decommissioning and the associated coal mine would become less relevant with each Unit closure.

Coal is More Expensive and Harmful:  The combined costs of building and operating coal-fired power plants, added to the cost of mining coal, the cost of restoring the damage (environmental, health, etc.) caused by mining coal, and the cost of the impact of the air, soil, and groundwater pollution of coal burning, makes the expense of coal-generated energy too high. With no mining, minimal pollution, and free fuel, solar and wind energy are less expensive and the green options don’t threaten the disastrous consequences of global warming caused by carbon-based fuels.

Alternative Energy is Becoming the Standard

Coal Generation Has Been On a 20 Year Decline:  In 1997, coal provided 52.8% of the energy generated at commercial sized units. By 2018, that had dropped down to 27.8%. No new coal-fired generating plants are being planned or built in the United States to replace old units scheduled to be closed. Coal is a dying industry and no one can say it’s a sudden death. [Source]

It’s the Mining Company, Stupid:  Mining has consistently replaced human workers with machines that are more productive, less expensive, and don’t complain or demand anything. The reduced size of the mining workforce in the United States has nothing to do with government regulation and everything to do with companies saving money by taking away mining jobs from their own workers.

The Person Standing On the Train Track

A person standing on an active train track has three choices. That person can, 1) step off the track before the train comes, 2) get up on the platform and hope the train stops to let him or her get on, or 3) continue to stand on the track and rant about the train until she or he is run over by it.

The video suggests that the people of Craig have chosen to take the third choice. There is no sudden change in the coal industry that is causing it to be phased out. Anyone who cared about their community would have known that coal was a bad bet in the economic sustainability game.

Moffat County, the Perfect Victims

Why is Craig the perfect platform to be showcased for a political agenda?

White Begats Red

Moffat County is Trump Country. It is 80% caucasian and overwhelmingly Republican. In the last 55 years, no Democratic Presidential candidate has obtained more than 40% of the vote in the county. Craig is happy to be the political tool of the white wing.

History of Being a Victim

Craig is located halfway between Denver and Salt Lake City. It used to be on the main route between the two major cities (US 40.) When Interstate 70 (I-70) was in the planning stages it was to terminate in Denver, but Governor Edwin Johnson, (a Moffat County native,) convinced the federal government to continue it through Colorado. The irony is that he ignored the existing US 40 route through his home town and proposed the interstate follow the US 6 route.

Signal Hill: The Faded Glory of Craig

That decision isolated Craig. Instead of being the perfect stopping point between Salt Lake and Denver, it became the town ninety miles south of Interstate 80 (I-80) and ninety miles north of I-70. The impact of that choice still affects Craig’s economy today.

Population Stagnation

While the population of every economically diverse community has been increasing over the last 30 years, Moffat County’s population hit a high of 14,541 in 1983 and today it has over 1,000 fewer people than 37 years ago. Every Spring, the high school graduates more students than the community has jobs. For decades, the need to diversify and expand Moffat County’s economy has been a topic of discussion…with no viable plan.

Imprisoned By Their Own Political Ideologies

One obvious opportunity is alternative energy. The transmission lines that connect Craig to the power infrastructure already exist with the terminus at the current power plants. A wind or solar farm in Moffat County wouldn’t have significant expenses in building transmission lines.

End of the Road in Craig

The problem is that alternate energy choices are exactly what many people from Craig have sworn to oppose. In their minds, solar and wind farms are a waste of time and resources. For a majority population of Trump supporters, accepting clean energy as a source of new jobs and revenue for the community is unthinkable. Better to fail and cry than admit their lack of foresight.

A Failure To Educate

Moffat County High School is one of the worst performing in the state. Those that graduate face the choice of few job opportunities in the community or leave and face difficult challenges in being competitive with better educated graduates. From the CollegeSimply website:

Moffat County High School has an academic rating well below the average for Colorado high schools based on its low test performance, average graduation rate and low AP course participation.

Moffat County High School students score less than a 9% proficiency in Math (State average is 33%,) and less than a 14% proficiency in Reading (State average is 42%.) Less than 9% of the students have passed one or more AP exams. [Source]

Whether Craig’s stagnated economy has led to poor education or poor education has led to a stagnated economy the result is the same, the future of the community is not in the hands of young people who can be expected to repair and build upon their parent’s lot in life.  

A Video For No Reason

All this may explain the attitudes and desperation of the people of Moffat County expressed in the video. They feel like victims and so rather than embrace new technologies and diversify the economy, they would rather hang on to the past.

This video is the perfect storm of ignorance, political game-playing, an attitude of defeat, and poor education. It exposes the city and county’s history of failing to be proactive. Instead of seeking a more diverse economy, a choice was made to seek pity. The community may never realize that a Devil’s Bargain has a price…and now they will pay.

[¹NOTE:  This video was posted on 29 January 2020 on the Facebook page of a former high school graduate of Moffat County High School who still lives in the region. The author of this article believed the video was published after the news of the closings; however, after this article was published the author became aware that the video was first published in 2015. Corrections to the text have been made accordingly. Also, the video embed link has since stopped working and has been replaced by a URL link. ]