Colo. Senate gives initial approval to power plant bill |

Colo. Senate gives initial approval to power plant bill

Associated Press Writer

DENVER – Legislation aimed at using natural gas to reduce Front Range emissions from coal-fired power plants and heading off federal clean air restrictions won initial approval Tuesday in the state Senate.

The Senate voted 20-13 to back the bill, setting up a final vote on Wednesday. The measure has already been approved by the House.

The bill is backed by an unlikely alliance of natural gas companies and environmentalists, as well as Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter. It’s been championed in the Senate by GOP leader Josh Penry as a way to increase gas drilling but he only managed to get two other Republicans to support him despite the party’s traditional support for the natural gas industry.

Some objected to the bill’s endorsement for natural gas, arguing that the industry should be able to win on its own merits if it can provide power cheaper and more cleanly.

Sen. Al White, R-Hayden, said it would hurt Colorado coal. About 70 percent of the state’s coal is exported, but White said that market has been shrinking as plants in the Midwest and the East Coast add scrubbers so they can continue to burn more of their dirtier coal.

“The coal industry is the one that is on the menu today,” said White, whose districts include both natural gas wells and coal mines.

Democratic Sen. Gail Schwartz, who represents coal miners in the Paonia area, voted for the bill after amending it to say that any power plant conversions take into account the “economic, health and environmental conditions” of energy producing communities.

The bill would require Xcel Energy to reduce emissions at about five of its coal-fired smokestacks in the northern Front Range and give primary consideration to replacing them with units powered by cleaner burning but more expensive natural gas.

Xcel said its older plants in Boulder, Denver and Brush would be reviewed, and it could propose a mixture of retiring some units and retrofitting others with emissions controls.

Rich Atkinson, a consultant for the Colowyo coal mine, said those three plants were all built to burn the type of coal mined in Colorado and the industry wouldn’t be able to make up for those lost in-state sales. By contrast, he said Xcel’s new coal-fired power plant in Pueblo is designed to burn Powder River Basin coal from Wyoming, where coal is typically mined on the surface and therefore cheaper.

Xcel estimates the bill could raise typical electric bills by between 4 to 6 percent but that reacting to mandates from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could cost more than that.

Both the gas and coal industries have been lobbying heavily on the bill and spending on newspaper and Web advertisements. If gas wins, it will have an example to hold up to other states and possibly Congress as lawmakers consider how to reduce emissions, including greenhouse gases.

Environmentalists say that fight has obscured the health benefits of reducing pollution, which their analysis associates with the premature deaths of 11 people and $112 million in health care costs each year.

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