Bill seeks additional $15M in funding for communities, such those in Yampa Valley, impacted by transition from coal

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — For more than a year, Colorado Office of Just Transition Director Wade Buchanan has been a one-man show running the new state office that aims to help communities and workers move away from coal.

After pandemic-related disruptions to state hiring, Buchanan now has help on the way with approval to add employees by summer to oversee the implementation of the ambitious Colorado Just Transition Action Plan finalized on Dec. 31, 2020. Buchanan hopes to be able to expand his office to some five employees throughout this year.

To support Just Transition plans now on paper, the state legislature on April 21 introduced House Bill 21-1290, which would provide $15 million in assistance. The bill would make general fund transfers of $8 million to the Just Transition fund and $7 million to a newly created coal transition worker assistance program account.

Buchanan said this one-time appropriation would be used to provide supplemental funding for existing state programs identified as the most effective for targeted investment in coal transition communities.

“If it passes, it will provide significant resources over the next two years to implement the action plan and give us a really good jump start on work,” said Buchanan, who started as director in March 2020 of the Just Transition office, which is housed under the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

The director said the action plan work in 2021 and 2022 will focus on supporting local communities’ visions for the future by utilizing existing programs and helping build capacity to attract private investment and economic development projects.

Some of that Just Transition foundational work has already trickled down with grant funding for a new economic development manager for the city of Craig, who was hired this spring. In addition, Routt County Commissioner Beth Melton, vice chair of the statewide Just Transition Advisory Committee, said efforts are underway to identify grant funding to support a combined Routt, Moffat and Rio Blanco county regional Just Transition leadership committee that could include a paid coordinator.

Wade Buchanan, director of the Colorado Office of Just Transition

Buchanan said the Yampa Valley is classified as a more affected tier-one community and is defined as Routt, Moffat and Rio Blanco counties and, specifically, the municipalities of Oak Creek, Hayden, Craig, Meeker and Rangely.

The action plan has six tactics such as “target early successes in business start-ups, expansions, retention and attraction” and “attract grants and investments to power local economic growth.” The plan outlines 29 first actions distributed throughout the strategic areas: community, worker and funding.

To help coordinate state assistance, the four tier-one communities are assigned a state action team. For the Yampa Valley action team, core members include Greg Winkler, regional manager for the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, and Katharina “Kat” Papenbrock, rural opportunity representative from the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade.

The other tier-one communities include the west end of Montrose County and the towns of Nucla and Naturita, Morgan County and the cities of Fort Morgan and Brush, and Pueblo County and the city of Pueblo.

“We are going to be as helpful as we can with resources, making connections and streamlining processes. Local communities have vision and focus and are setting the priorities, and we are trying to stand beside them to help implement,” said Buchanan, who previously worked in state government in director and adviser roles following a 15-year stint as president of the Denver-based Bell Policy Center.

Buchanan said the legislation that created the Office of Just Transition concentrates on workers laid off as a result of closures of coal-fired power plants, not workers who leave through attrition from normal energy market forces. The first scheduled closure in Northwest Colorado is Craig Station Unit 1 by Dec. 31, 2025.

“We would like to get upstream from that. We’d like to help workers plan ahead, but what that looks like exactly we haven’t yet determined,” Buchanan said. “Certainly, one year from now we will have a lot more clarity about how we can help that person.”

Xcel Energy, which will retire and then repurpose the Hayden Station units in 2027 and 2028, announced in February it will not lay off the approximately 68 employees in Hayden but will manage the transition through retirements, attrition and offering retraining programs.

Buchanan said the state’s anticipated coal mining worker layoffs do not have set schedules and are expected to be more gradual.

The director said once pandemic restrictions are eased, his office will re-engage in community-level meetings.

The 20-page Colorado Just Transition Acton Plan can be found on the Office of Just Transition website at Email for more information.

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