Colorado coal production — hobbled by mine closures and a weak market — slipped to a 20-year low in 2014, according to state data. The state’s eight mines produced just under 23 million tons of coal in 2014, a 5 percent drop from 2013.

Colorado coal production is down 39 percent in the last 10 years.

There was also a nearly 20 percent cut in mining jobs to 1,512 in 2014, according to the state Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety.

The loss of 345 mining jobs in 2014 followed a cut of more than 150 jobs in 2013.

Miner Mike Snyder.

Miner Mike Snyder. (RJ Sangosti, Denver Post file photo)

“For the state, it doesn’t amount to much. But for Western Slope communities, it is big,” said Martin Shields, director of the Regional Economic Institute at Colorado State University. “These are well-paying jobs — an average of $80,000 — in places where good jobs are scarce.”

The losses will ripple across the local economies in Routt, Delta and Gunnison counties — to restaurants, car dealerships and stores, Shields said.

The key driver in a nationwide decline in coal production is low natural gas prices, said Brandon Blossman, a managing director at the energy investment bank Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co.

This has led utility companies, the major consumers of coal, to switch to natural gas-fired turbines, Blossman said.

“It is pure economics, pure pricing,” he said.

Still, regulatory changes may also make coal less attractive, said Harrison Fell, a Colorado School of Mines economist.

Miner Seth Russell.

Miner Seth Russell. (RJ Sangosti, Denver Post file photo)

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has issued new regulations to limit the amount of mercury — a dangerous heavy metal — that power plants can emit.

The EPA is also drafting rules requiring power plants to cut emissions of carbon dioxide, a gas linked to global climate change. Burning coal creates almost twice as much carbon dioxide as natural gas, according to federal figures.

“Coal is getting squeezed by the market and by regulation,” Fell said.

Part of the Colorado decline is due to operating problems. The Elk Creek Mine in Somerset was closed in December 2013, after underground fires made the mine too dangerous for miners.

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Reposted on 2/14/2015 by