Aspen’s state rep. risks enviros’ ire by defending coal miners
DENVER – Aspen’s representative in the Colorado House said she wanted to defend 700 coal miners and their families even if she alienated environmentalists in her district with a vote Monday.
State Rep. Kathleen Curry voted against a proposal that will require Xcel Energy to convert coal-burning power plants to natural gas plants. The final vote wasn’t available on the Colorado General Assembly’s website Monday evening, but Curry said the bill passed easily in its third and final reading. She said she was one of only 12 or 15 “no” votes in the 65-member House.
Curry said she understands the importance of moving toward more clean-burning natural gas to improve air quality and reduce carbon emissions. The bill is backed by Colo. Gov. Bill Ritter and has bipartisan support. However, as the state moves toward phasing out coal-fired plants, it must address how it affects miners and their dependents “rather than viewing them as collateral damage,” she said.
Curry spoke against the bill on the House floor. She explained her opposition in a Legislative Newsletter e-mailed to constituents on Monday.
“I have significant coal production in my district, with over 700 miners working in two major mines on the North Fork of the Gunnison [River],” Curry wrote. “I don’t think the state should dictate this conversion. I think it will negatively impact the coal industry, and I think it will drive up rates for consumers.”
Curry is an unaffiliated legislator from Gunnison. Her sprawling district includes the Roaring Fork Valley and most of Garfield County. There is a strong environmental movement within her district and widespread support for a clean energy economy, but Curry said she hasn’t received many comments on her position from environmentalists.
Curry believes the concern over her mining constituents and their well-being resonates with everyone. “I don’t think the environmental movement is heartless,” she said.
One of Aspen’s leading environmentalists, Aspen Skiing Co. Executive Director of Sustainability Auden Schendler, suggested last month that U.S. Rep. John Salazar would pay a political price for joining the U.S. House’s new coal caucus. Salazar said coal is a vital resource that must continue playing a role in energy needs.
Schendler said in early February he was “appalled” by Salazar’s position and warned the congressman shouldn’t count on raising funds in Aspen for his November re-election bid.
Schendler had no such harsh words for Curry because, he said, it diverts attention from the real issue of burning coal. Schendler indicated her opposition was misguided.
“This is what we need to be doing,” he said of converting from coal to natural gas power plants. “It’s one of the most progressive pieces of legislation in the country.”
When told that Curry was partially opposed because it would eliminate jobs for 700 of her constituents, Schendler said lawmakers need to help find ways to transition miners into the clean energy economy. He didn’t accept that Curry was in a tough political position.
“Everybody’s got a choice. It’s a question of what’s the right thing to do,” Schendler said.
Curry said she didn’t have to spend much time considering what was the right thing to do. “Taking a position in opposition really wasn’t that hard,” she said.
After approval by the House, the bill now goes to the State Senate. Sen. Gail Schwartz, D.-Snowmass Village, has the same 700 coal miners in and around Somerset as her constituents, but she is also a major backer of the clean energy economy. She couldn’t be reached on Monday for comment on the bill.