10/11/2010 12:57 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Real Growing Pains and the Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act

Colorado's Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act (HB 1365) is crafted to take Colorado past its coal intensive glory by ordering Xcel Energy (and Black Hills) to retire or retrofit a significant portion of their coal burning capacity and supplant it with natural gas. For Xcel, that means about 900 megawatts - all of Valmont's 186 MW in Boulder, and most of Cherokee in Denver. This law was passed to protect the state from top-down intervention expected from the US Environmental Protection Agency in compelling compliance with clean air standards.

And the Front Range needs to comply. To listen to doctors from National Jewish Health speak -- of the effect of ozone and particulates on the lungs of Front Range residents at the public hearing at the Public Utilities Commission on September 23 -- is to lose all doubt.

Through four and a half hours, roughly one hundred people gave sworn testimony that fell largely into two camps -- one on the costly health effects of the particulates and ozone-laced air, and the other camp spoke of the economic ruin that mining communities fearfully expect.

(Full disclosure: Yours truly testified of her history with mild asthma and lung surgery to correct a rare lung disorder needed while living close to the Valmont plant.)

A mom from Golden spoke with three children; she told of her youngest child's asthma, its impact on his life and hers, of the trips to medical appointments and other efforts.

Perhaps most jarring was a pediatrician citing a study on healthy children -- one group growing up in air laced with small particulates and ozone, and a second group living in clean air. The former group reportedly had five times more measurable lung damage than the latter. A doctor for Physicians for Social Responsibility described the smallness of airborne particulates enabling them to pass through the blood-brain barrier, contributing perhaps to a noted trend of lower IQs in children in the most polluted areas.

The commissioners also heard from railroad executives and truck drivers, hotel owners in Craig, a power plant operator and dozens of miners and their relatives opposing the plan to retire rather than retrofit coal plant capacity. The level of emotion for all but the executives was palpable. Most emphasized the many generations their families had lived in Colorado and how they adored their communities; many exclaimed the pristine air of northwest Colorado, thanks, reportedly, to top-notch scrubbers on their nearby large coal plant.

So much was said of the extraordinarily deep blue of the sky around Craig, one could not help but wonder about the solar energy potential.

It certainly seemed that the area, and the niceness of the people, must make a terrific destination for a weekend visit.

Along with the local pride was evidence of the coal community feeling downtrodden. One woman, near tears, showed the portraits of members of her family, sure that HB 1365 would dislocate them. One man introduced himself as "one of those dirty coal miners everyone's been talking about." Many seemed shaken by the seriousness of air quality issues, remarking how "no one wants bad air quality."

In preparation for the public hearings, the Commission posted an economic impact report on HB 1365 by the LEEDS School of Business, which some opponents criticized. However its predictions indicate that Colorado's coal country can prevail -- with assertions that two-thirds of coal produced in Colorado now is sold out of state, and the portion going to Valmont and Cherokee is only 7 percent. Net jobs in the coal industry would supposedly remain constant.

Colorado Conservation Voters paid for a public opinion poll on HB 1365 that was conducted by two polling firms, one Democratic and one Republican. It found that nearly 80 percent of voters prefer their power to be generated by natural gas and renewable resources instead of coal -- and are willing to pay for it, as reported by the Denver Business Journal.

The pain of the coal miners and their families was distressing to watch. As often as they spoke of rising demand for energy, some must have guessed their product would see no slump in demand if Cherokee and Valmont stopped burning coal. Indeed, Peabody Coal has been announcing its vision for greater sales through exports to China, with intent to get ports in the Northwest expanded. Maybe the large number of t-shirts emblazoned with "Clean Coal Technology - It Works" had something to do with the miners' selection of information.

Nonetheless, clean energy leaders in the Front Range should take a look at Colorado's coal mining areas, their beautiful natural resources, their labor market and community colleges, and the Workforce Investment Act's ability to help workers through transitions that we on the Front Range are all too willing to cause and profit by. Colorado's coal country also needs to profit in the New Energy Economy, instead of being so dominated by one industry.

A version of this column appeared in the Boulder Daily Camera