Natural resource abundance is an advantage that all economies — local and national — covet.
There isn't a single corner of Delta County's social or economic life that doesn't benefit directly from the presence of the local coal mines.
But Delta County's great, good fortune of natural resource abundance too often is a blessing that's taken for granted. Some are saying that now it's time for the friends of Delta County coal to start speaking up.
Even as the county's super-compliant coal supplies provide fuel for affordable electricity, a richly funded political agenda beginning at the top levels of U.S. government and reaching into local grass roots wants to turn the lights out on the nation's coal industry, including the North Fork Valley.
The people who manage operations at Oxbow's Elk Creek Mine are fighting against determined political opposition that wants them out of business. Oxbow, a company that has proven its commitment to local workers and the local community, is facing crippling job cuts next year because of opposition from national environmental groups that never heard of, and don't care about, Delta County.
Oxbow president Jim Cooper calls it, "The story that isn't heard."
Oxbow's efforts recover additional reserves from its Somerset mine with a routine lease extension has been stalled for five years by national environmentalist opposition and legal maneuvering. Even some North Fork Valley environmentalists joined in the opposition, and now 30 good jobs are going unfilled because of the delays. In a year, another 145 jobs could be gone.
In Cooper's words, "We have the right to extend the lease, but we are held up at every start" by legal manipulation of the rules, "appeals, and politics."
And, the anti-coal interests offer nothing as substitute for the most economical half of America's energy resources they want to shutter. "They want to stop the use of coal, period. What is their alternative? They don't have one," says Randy Litwiller, Oxbow vice-president.
Just a few facts and figures show the importance of Delta County's three local mines. In the case of Oxbow, those facts would include the following:
• Around 350 employees, each one of those jobs helping support four others in the local economy;
• Average pay and benefits over $100,000 per employee contributing to the economies of local communities;
• This year paid 12 percent of the county's property taxes, $508,208 total, including $303,515 to Delta County school district.
The list runs much longer. And as impressive as the numbers are, they barely hint at the human dimension; the significance of the mine's presence in the lives of the people who work there, and in the lives of many others who benefit from it.
Oxbow has proven its commitment to workers. Cooper cites one example: When a production shutdown idled workers, Oxbow owner Bill Koch continued paying the workers even though there was no regulation that required it.
There is a proven commitment to the local community, too. Why else, Cooper asks, would Oxbow owner Bill Koch be willing to invest more than $400 million in Delta County over the next nine years, when with a $4.7 million investment he can mine high-grade coal in Colombia?
Oxbow is in fact doing that Colombia project. But it is Oxbow's commitment to Delta County communities, local miners, and their families that keeps the company here, Cooper explains.
Facts like those don't count with the coal industry's enemies. Many of them are successful, politically connected elitists. They live in a world of abundance, which they wrongly believe is the result of their own preference and politics.
Their enablers are politicians and bureaucrats whose ideas of "a post-industrial economy, carbon footprints, and green jobs" spawn endless regulations. The anti-business rules are based on methane emission models that are unproven or even discredited.
The managers and employees of Oxbow's Somerset mine see the world differently. For them, wealth and prosperity are the result of individual initiative, capital investment and risk taking. They understand that nations who ignore natural laws like supply and demand fundamentals are doomed to fail.
When it comes to Oxbow's commitment to its new mining project on Oak Mesa north of Hotchkiss, members of the mine's management team are on the same page. Along with Cooper, they are men with a collective century of mining experience. And there are deep local roots.
For example, when at home, mine vice-president Litwiller irrigates his fields on Fruitland Mesa. Human resources manager Steve Lewis is raising his family here and takes pride in his wife's own successful local business.
Other professionals who are a part of that team share the commitment. They include financial analyst Rob Thurman, special projects manager Steve Weist, chief engineer Doug Smith, operations superintendent Jens Lange, safety director Terry Hayes, environmental manager Jim Kiger, and others. To a man, they display the high-energy, positive outlook that has harnessed a continent's natural wealth and created the American Dream.
But even so, the company expects determined opposition to its Oak Mesa project, one that will keep up to 400 local miners and others at work here for decades after the coal seams finally run out at Somerset.
Already being heard are complaints that the project will hurt local "ag tourism." This in spite of the fact that agriculture and mining have coexisted in Delta County for over 100 years.
Litwiller explains that now isn't the time for people with a stake in Delta County's economic future to sit on the sidelines.
"We are approaching a critical juncture in our future and our jobs," Litwiller writes in a recent article. "In order to preserve both, we have no choice but to get involved."
Oxbow is mounting a determined effort to get its story heard over the cries of its environmentalist opposition. "We can no longer sit idly by and consider ourselves the 'Silent Majority.' We must speak out in support of ourselves at every opportunity."
The company is working to enlist a network of individuals and community organizations that will stand with them, and who will speak up to politicians and the media about the vital benefits of the coal industry.
That effort is being coordinated by contact person Steve Lewis at the Somerset mine.
Oxbow believes there is a lot of minable coal under Oak Mesa, and the company is committed to producing it for people "in an environmentally responsible manner."
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