Colorado's upcoming gubernatorial election will determine the state's energy policy for the foreseeable future, but coal will continue to decline regardless of who wins, according to several experts in the state.
The two candidates' views on energy "couldn't be more different," said University of Colorado law professor Mark Squillace, former director of the university's natural resources law center.
The Democrat, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, is running on a platform of generating 100% of Colorado's energy from renewable resources by 2040, while Republican Walker Stapleton is more friendly to fossil fuels. Though there's little mention of coal on Stapleton's website, he said he plans to work with the energy sector "with an understanding that new technology and innovation drive constant changes to the business practices of the industry."
A Polis win in November could accelerate coal's demise in Colorado, but that outcome is "somewhat inevitable," said K.K. DuVivier, a University of Denver energy law professor, citing the health impacts of the fuel as well as its struggle to compete in the market.
Colorado coal has largely been on the decline since 2012, despite a brief uptick in 2017.
Ian Lange, director of the Colorado School of Mines' mineral and energy economics program, said market forces will likely drive coal out of Colorado regardless of leadership.
"It might be different in a place like North Dakota or in a place like the southeast, which might have different wind and solar resources available to them," Lange said, "but in a place like Colorado it sort of just seems like that's where we're going."
The president of the National Mining Association said in September that he thinks the state's coal sector is stable for the time being, but its future will be largely dependent on politics and utilities.
"I think all that's modified by a clear recognition that many communities in Colorado are dependent, not only on fossil fuel, but coal as a main driver to their economy," he said.
Coal will likely last beyond the next governor's term because of the tax base the industry provides and its tie to development in rural communities, Lange said.
Squillace said he does not think Polis would level the coal sector entirely during a four-year gubernatorial term since much of the state's coal is mined on public lands and protected by leases, which are typically issued for 20 years.
"I think leadership at the top could certainly affect how much coal is being produced and how much is being burned in the state and outside the state," Squillace said. "... Certainly if the governor came out in opposition to new coal leases on federal lands, that probably would make a difference."
Some environmentalists have rallied behind Polis because of his commitment to renewable energy. Emily Gedeon, conservation program director with the Colorado Sierra Club, said her organization sees Polis as a candidate who will continue the work of past administrations on clean energy, while "even taking bolder steps" and making the transition a priority.
Others view Polis' policies as a threat to utility prices in the state. Amy Oliver Cooke, executive vice president and director of the Energy and Environmental Policy Center for the Independence Institute, a Colorado free-market think tank, called Polis' plan a "wild idea" that would make the state more expensive and more dependent on nations that mine the rare earth elements required to build renewable energy resources.
If Stapleton wins the election, "there will be a support for coal that has not been there for 12 years," she said.
Floyd Ciruli, an independent pollster and media commentator in Colorado, predicted Polis will win and that his "general philosophy will be renewables in any way he can incentivize them," which usually means disincentivizing fossil fuel.
"The left side of the Democratic Party is outraged by the administration's approach on global warming and specifically on coal," Ciruli said. "Those will be the people that [are] going to populate his administration. Those are the people that advise him."