Coal mining companies and the state of Wyoming secretly coordinated and funded a campaign against Xcel Energy’s proposal to close two units at the largest coal plant in Colorado. While the Independence Institute, a conservative think tank based in Denver, and its “Coalition of Ratepayers” was the public face of the failed campaign, emails obtained through a public records request reveal that the effort was actually the work of a group focused on delaying the closures of coal plants around the country that burn coal mined in Wyoming.

In the Colorado Energy Plan that Xcel submitted to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission (PUC) in 2017, the company proposed retiring two of the three units at the Comanche coal plant near Pueblo, Colorado and replacing them with hundreds of megawatts of new wind, solar, and battery storage projects, along with existing gas plants. Xcel Energy’s plan attracted national attention because the “unprecedented” low prices for new renewable energy projects showed that utilities can now reduce costs by replacing existing coal plants with wind, solar and storage projects.

A report from the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the Colorado Energy Plan will provide a net positive economic impact to Colorado – in large part by avoiding nearly $1 billion in coal purchases from mines in Wyoming. The report explained: “The net decrease in coal purchases total $932 million over the 23 years; the Powder River Basin in Wyoming bears all of the decrease in coal purchase.” According to Energy Information Administration data, the Comanche coal plant burns coal mined in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, the source of nearly half the coal burned in the U.S.

An effort to keep Colorado's largest coal plant running, supposedly by the "Independence Institute," was secretly funded and coordinated by a front group for coal mining companies and the state of Wyoming.
Xcel Energy’s Comanche coal plant near Pueblo, Colorado. Photo by Joe Smyth

Emails show coal front group campaign to keep Comanche burning Wyoming coal

The loudest critic of Xcel Energy’s plan to close the Comanche coal units was the “Coalition of Ratepayers,” ostensibly organized by the Independence Institute, which called itself “a Colorado non-profit concerned with issues impacting small business and residential ratepayers that otherwise have no advocate and no voice.”

In reality, the Independence Institute’s “Coalition of Ratepayers” effort to keep the Comanche coal plant running was part of a campaign by the Energy Policy Network (EPN), a front group for coal mining companies like Peabody Energy, as well as the state of Wyoming. Emails obtained through a public records request show communications between the group’s Executive Director Randy Eminger, and its Vice President Jacob Williams, a former Peabody Energy executive and current general manager of the Florida Municipal Power Agency, revealing extensive details about the coal front group’s campaign in Colorado, as well as its funding sources.

An attorney for the Independence Institute told the Colorado Sun that “the institute and coalition do not discuss or disclose our donors or contributors.”

One exchange shows Williams connecting Eminger with a “highly valued and trusted supporter of the coal industry” (whose name is redacted), with whom Williams had recently met in Washington DC where they “agreed the Comanche effort is the next big one.” Williams also noted how “the utilities have more incentives than ever to close them” and discussed previous EPN efforts to keep coal plants running in Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas.

Other emails show Eminger’s regular updates to a list of coal mining executives and Wyoming state officials about EPN’s efforts in Colorado to keep the Comanche coal units from closing.

In a February 2018 update, Eminger outlined “The Case for Comanche,” and explained “the criteria that EPN has employed in deciding which coal fueled power plants to defend.” Williams responded to that email to compliment Eminger for “what drives EPN involvement,” but also asked “Was there any reason to not say a PRB plant was the other screen,” referring to the Powder River Basin in Wyoming. Eminger responded: “No reason. I just assumed it was a given. I’ll make sure it’s on the list.”

Wyoming coal front group repeatedly referred to “Our Coalition of Ratepayers”

Eminger’s July 2018 update on EPN’s efforts to keep the Comanche coal plant running highlighted the role of “Our Colorado Ratepayer Coalition,” and appealed to his list of coal mining executives and Wyoming officials for more money. Eminger pleaded that “our Ratepayer Coalition will continue the fight – but we could really use your help! It should come as no surprise that cost of regulatory attorneys and expert witnesses are expensive.”

In the next update, Eminger again referred to “Our Coalition of Ratepayers.” Williams, the former Peabody executive, responded with a suggestion that Eminger add six more Peabody Energy executives to his list, explaining: “The more Peabody Sr. Management engaged, the better.”

Attorney and consultant representing “Coalition of Ratepayers” were actually part of coal front group’s team

Other emails show Eminger coordinating with Independence Institute staff and an attorney that purported to represent the “Coalition of Ratepayers.” In one exchange, Eminger discussed the implications of a Colorado PUC decision with Independence Institute attorney Shayne Madsen and then-Executive Vice President Amy Cooke, as well as Meghan Griffiths, an attorney with the Texas law firm Jackson Walker.

In one of his updates, Eminger also highlighted the role of Charles Griffey, an energy consultant and adjunct professor at Rice University.

Griffiths and Griffey claimed to represent the “Coalition of Ratepayers” in filings submitted to the Colorado PUC. But in presentations to coal industry groups, Eminger described the attorneys as part of his EPN team.

At the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority 2019 Spring Energy Conference, Eminger explained how EPN intervenes in other states to try and keep power plants that burn Wyoming coal online, and highlighted Griffith’s and Griffey’s roles with EPN:

“We do the research, we build a regulatory team, I have a great lead attorney, actually it’s Jackson Walker, the same law firm that Mike [Nasi] works for, and Meghan Griffiths is an excellent lead attorney for us. And we have Charles Griffey who is our technical expert.”

In another presentation, Eminger highlighted Griffith, Griffey, and Michael Nasi as part of “Our Team.”

Coal front group ran a public relations campaign with Denver PR firm Novitas

In addition to intervening at the Colorado PUC, emails show that EPN ran a public relations campaign targeting Colorado media outlets, along with Denver PR firm Novitas Communications. In one update, Eminger gave “a shout out to our wonderful media firm ‘Novitas’ for all the hard work they put into our Colorado effort,” and highlighted “Positive press clips from Comanche battle,” including op-eds and news stories in several Colorado media outlets including the Denver Post, Greeley Tribune, Colorado Politics, Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, and others.

In another email, Eminger gave a “quick update on our PR program efforts to save the Comanche I & II,” including “Door hangers in the neighborhood where the Commissioner reside [sic].”

Peabody, Cloud Peak, and state of Wyoming funded coal front group

A tax form provides details about EPN’s sources of funding – though only for 2017. The public records request returned an unredacted version of EPN’s 2017 990 form, which included two pages that list EPN’s funding sources, which is not included in the publicly available version. Those records show that Cloud Peak Energy contributed $150,000 to EPN in 2017, and Peabody Energy contributed $36,920. The Wyoming Infrastructure Authority contributed $100,000, the State of Wyoming contributed $150,000, and Campbell County Wyoming contributed $60,000. Combined, those three public entities in Wyoming contributed $310,000 to EPN in 2017 – more than half its total funding in that year.

EPN’s 990s also reported a $45,000 payment to the Independence Institute in 2017, and $70,000 in 2018.

It is not clear which entities funded EPN at what levels in 2018, when most of the “Coalition of Ratepayers” effort in Colorado was underway.

Coal front group tried to bill Colorado ratepayers for more than $600,000

In August 2018, the Colorado PUC approved Xcel Energy’s Colorado Energy Plan, rejecting the “Coalition of Ratepayers” arguments, and paving the way for the early retirement of the Comanche coal units and the development of hundreds of megawatts of new renewable energy projects.

But EPN’s attorney and consultant didn’t end their efforts at the Colorado PUC – Griffiths and Griffey then tried to charge Xcel Energy ratepayers for their efforts to keep the Comanche coal plant running.

In filings submitted to the Colorado PUC, the “Coalition of Ratepayers” sought $610,073.81 from Xcel Energy ratepayers, with Griffey’s expenses accounting for $167,797.52, and law firm Jackson Walker accounting for $382,974.72. The filing stated that “Meghan Griffiths was the primary attorney at Jackson Walker, LLC,” and charged $595/hour.

The Colorado PUC denied the reimbursement request.

Posted by Joe Smyth

Joe Smyth is a Research and Communications Manager for the Energy and Policy Institute.