- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 14, 2015

CRAIG, Colo. — Jana Venzke is fighting the war on coal here in northwest Colorado — one bottle of craft beer at a time.

Last week, she pulled every New Belgium and Breckenridge label from the shelves at her store, A1 Liquors, after finding their names on a list of businesses that contribute to WildEarth Guardians, the anti-coal group whose lawsuit threatens to shutter the local Colowyo Mine, taking 220 jobs with it.

“This is a coal town here. Where we make our income is through coal miners,” said Ms. Venzke, whose husband, Ryan, works as a miner in the nearby Twentymile Mine. “If we don’t have their support, we as a liquor store wouldn’t be here either.”

She’s not the only one. About a dozen liquor retailers are participating in the Yampa Valley beer boycott, part of a regional uprising of residents, business owners and elected officials fighting to save the Colowyo Mine, an economic backbone of the rural community in the remote far northwestern corner of the state.

“I have 12 holes on my shelves right now because of them supporting WildEarth Guardians,” said Lori Gillam, who owns Stockmen’s Liquor. “WildEarth Guardians has said they want to ban coal — they want it gone — and we’re a coal-mining town. It’s important for us to support the people who support us and not the people who want to destroy our community.”

The backlash kicked in after U.S. District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson ruled May 8 in WildEarth Guardians’ favor, concluding that the Interior Department’s office of surface mining fell short in its 2007 permit allowing the mine to expand by failing to provide enough public notice or take into account the impact on air quality.

The judge gave the federal agency 120 days to bring the permit into compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act. The problem is that virtually nobody thinks that 120 days is enough time.

“I believe that public involvement and compliance with NEPA are fundamental to federal agencies like OSM making informed decisions concerning federal resources,” said a statement by Colorado Department of Natural Resources Director Mike King.

“However, the court has provided an unrealistically short time frame to remedy a complicated NEPA process; threatening a mine shut-down on a federal permitting decision that has been in place for eight years and that Colowyo has been implementing during that time is an unacceptable result,” he said.

Tri-State Generation and Transmission, the rural energy co-op that owns the Colowyo Mine, has filed for a stay pending an appeal, but without that hold, it’s likely the mine will be forced to close, at least temporarily.

A shutdown would be devastating not just for miners but also for the region. The coal mine brings an estimated $200 million to the struggling rural area, along with $12 million in local, state and federal tax revenue, according to Tri-State.

WildEarth Guardians’ Jeremy Nichols insists that his group isn’t the villain.

“There’s this impression that we sued Colowyo. We sued the federal government for breaking the law, which is something that should be a concern for every American citizen,” Mr. Nichols said.

WildEarth Guardians declared in a statement last month that the Tri-State plant, which provides electricity to 1.5 million rural customers, emits “nearly 9 million tons of carbon pollution every year, making it one of the largest single sources of greenhouse gases in Colorado.”

“I think people in Craig should be marching up to the Interior Department right now and telling them to get the job done right,” Mr. Nichols said. “They should take into account the environmental impacts of coal mining and ensure the American public that as they authorize the mining of publicly owned coal, that they’re doing it with their eyes wide open and ensuring that they’re making the best decision.”

About 900 people packed the Moffat County High School auditorium for a June 3 community meeting on how to combat the closure, at which local elected officials and Tri-State CEO Mike McInnes vowed to fight for the mine’s survival.

“This commodity that we — you and I and all of us — produce that is so essential to life, and the lifestyle we want, continues to face challenges on every front,” said Mr. McInnes. “And I’m telling you, this isn’t the last one we’re going to face. We have got a lot of them, and we’re going to take on every one of them as we come to them. But we need your help.”

Brewers react

At least two of the breweries targeted by the boycott have been quick to distance themselves from any “war on coal.” Terry Usry, a spokesman for Breckenridge Brewery, said the company’s name appeared on WildEarth Guardians’ online “Businesses for Guardians” list after an employee donated a $30 gift card for a 2011 fundraiser.

“As soon as this story came to our attention, we contacted WildEarth Guardians and asked that they remove Breckenridge Brewery from their list of supporters, and they immediately complied,” Mr. Usry said in an email.

He added that the WildEarth Guardians fundraiser had nothing to do with the Colowyo or Trapper coal mines, and that since then, “[W]e have had no other involvement with WildEarth Guardians.”

Bryan Simpson, a spokesman for New Belgium Brewing, said the brewery has donated more than $9,000 to WildEarth Guardians since 2008 but that the funding was directed toward “restoration projects along the Colorado River,” not the anti-coal campaign.

“Specific to any work WildEarth Guardians has done regarding the Colowyo and Trapper mines, we were unaware of it at the time and that is outside the scope of our grant allocations,” said a New Belgium statement. “In this case, our funding dollars were allocated for healthy watershed projects only, and no money was given to overturn mining operations. Additionally, we have never granted operational funds to Wild Earth Guardians and we have no future funding plans at this time.”

Several New Belgium representatives drove to Moffat County last week to interview about 12 liquor store owners participating in the boycott.

“We listened to heartfelt stories and heard people’s take on the industry and our philanthropic efforts,” Mr. Simpson said in an email. “We’re turning all that information over to our philanthropy committee for review and to inform our process going forward. The visit only amplified the respect and appreciation we all feel for the people of Craig.”

Local liquor retailers aren’t the only ones lining up to fight to preserve the mine. Frank and Kerry Moe say fully 60 percent of the traffic at their Best Western hotel stems from mine-related business.

“Aren’t there more of us than there are of these fringe groups?” Ms. Moe asked at the public meeting. “Can’t we all band together? Can’t all the power plants band together and all the coal miners band together and, once and for all, stop this nonsense and make it go away for good?”

Environmental groups aren’t the only threats to coal. The industry took a hit with the Obama administration’s recent emissions restrictions on coal-fired plants while falling natural gas prices have driven reductions in coal production by making gas-fired plants more competitive.

Coal emits more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than natural gas, but Colorado coal producers point out that their product is relatively low in sulfur, meaning that it burns cleaner than other coal. Colorado ranks as the nation’s 11th-largest coal producer and coal provides 64 percent of the state’s electricity, according to the Colorado Mining Association.

“[E]verybody that has a logical mind understands that coal is the basis of electricity in the country and it’s the basis of reliability and the basis of affordable electricity,” Mr. McInnes said.

The little community of Craig has received bipartisan support from Democrats including Gov. John Hickenlooper and Sen. Michael Bennet as well as Republican Sen. Cory Gardner and Rep. Scott Tipton, all of whom have asked Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to consider filing an appeal.

At the public meeting, Mr. McInnes urged residents to submit as many comments to the OSM as possible before Monday’s deadline.

He also implored the crowd to stay classy. “One of the things that I’m really proud of is the way in which this community has handled this unfortunate situation, with class and dignity,” he said.

“We don’t need to be abrasive,” Mr. McInnes said. “We don’t need to be combative. This is a very irrational thing that is going on, and I’m asking you to be the rational voice in this.”

In the meantime, fans of New Belgium’s Fat Tire amber ale will have to look elsewhere for their favorite beverage or try some of the other brews that Ms. Venzke has brought in to fill the void.

Far from being upset, she said, her customers are “actually happy” about her decision to join the beer boycott.

“This is a very tight-knit community,” Ms. Venzke said. “They don’t want us obviously supporting something that’s going to potentially put them and their family members and friends out of work.”

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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