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Order to close three Colorado coal-fired power plants early reversed, regulators cite “incomplete” information

Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission said issues around closing plants a year early were too complex

The Craig Station coal-burning power plant in Moffat County is pictured Feb. 27, 2020. Tri-State Generation plans to close the plant by 2030. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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The Colorado Air Quality Control Commission, at the urging of utility companies, did a regulatory two-step on Wednesday, rescinding the order for early closure of three coal-fired power plants that it issued last month.

The November decision, made as part of the state’s plan to reduce regional haze at national parks, was based on incomplete information, Commissioner Jana Milford said.

“It didn’t fit in[ the] regional haze [plan] as it might have,” Commissioner Elise Jones said. 

The pollutants creating regional haze are nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and soot. The commission had sought to lock-in reductions of carbon dioxide, a colorless gas that is the main contributor to climate change.

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The commission voted to reopen the record, add the utilities’ arguments and information and reverse itself. The decision to rescind the early closures was unanimous.

The three plants targeted were Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association’s Craig Unit 3 in Moffat County; the Platte River Power Authority’s Rawhide plant north of Fort Collins; and the Ray D. Nixon Plant, owned by Colorado Springs Utilities.

All three plants are slated to close voluntarily by 2030. The AQCC order would have required them closed by the end of 2028.

The three utilities took the unusual step of filing a motion to reopen the proceedings, add information and reargue the case.

The Sierra Club and the National Parks Conservation Association opposed the request, calling it an “11th hour” maneuver to re-litigate a case that had already been decided.

“The Colorado Air Quality Control Commission had a golden opportunity to take immediate action to clear up our skies and reduce air pollution in our treasured national parks,” Sarah Bransom, a spokeswoman for the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, said in a statement. “Instead, because of industry pressure, they voted on a weaker option.”

The two environmental organizations estimated that closing the aging coal-fired plants would save customers about $68 million and cut nitrogen oxide emissions (NOx) by 12,000 tons a year and carbon dioxide emissions (CO2) by 19.4 million tons.

NOx contributes to regional haze and CO2 is a greenhouse gas that is contributing to climate change.

The utilities argued that the commission had adopted the closure order only because the utilities had announced the voluntary closings.

“Had the utilities thought these voluntary retirement dates would be subject to change by the AQCC, they may not have offered them for inclusion under the regional haze program,” the utilities said in their motion.

The utilities also maintained that no statute gives the AQCC the power to order coal-plant closures and that such an order constitutes a taking of property since it would deprive the companies of a year of the plants’ economic value.

The companies also argued that the ACQQ action encroaches upon and undermines the authority of the state’s Public Utilities Commission.

In their filing, the Sierra Club and NPCA countered that the Clean Air Act, under which the regional haze plan is being developed, authorizes “sweeping powers” to eliminate human-caused haze pollution.

The groups also noted that the utilities never brought up the takings issue during the original hearing and thus had no right to bring it up after the fact. They also noted that PUC has no power to regulate power plants to reduce regional haze – only the AQCC has that authority.

The AQCC is also responsible for developing a plan to meet the greenhouse gas reduction targets set out in House Bill 1261, which was signed in law in 2019.

Colorado is required to cut its emissions 26% from 2005 levels by 2025; 50% by 2030; and 90% by 2050. The AQQC’s original order was driven, in part, by an effort to lock-in reductions in CO2 from the power plants.

The electricity sector is the second largest source of greenhouse gas in Colorado after transportation. Electricity generation accounted for 28% of the 132 million tons of the greenhouse gas emission in 2015, when the last state greenhouse gas inventory was completed.

The commission removed the power plants from the regional haze plan and references to greenhouse gas from the plan’s statement basis of purpose.

“It is an open question: What else needs to be done by the commission to meet the goals of 1261,” Jones said.


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