Colorado unemployment claims decline, payouts still historic

DENVER (AP) — Regular unemployment claims declined for a fifth straight week last week but Colorado is paying record jobless benefits as the result of economic restrictions imposed because of the coronavirus pandemic, the state labor department said Thursday.

Last week, 17,825 people applied for regular unemployment benefits in Colorado, down from 22,483 the week before. In addition, 7,633 self-employed and gig workers filed claims for federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

Last week, the state paid out $88.8 million in regular unemployment benefits. During the height of the Great Recession, the state paid out an average of $19 million in unemployment benefits each week. The state paid $315 million in regular unemployment benefits in April, breaking the previous record total of $102.8 million set in May 2009.

The top five industries with workers getting unemployment assistance are accommodation and food services, retail, healthcare and social services and administrative, waste management and remediation services, which includes telemarketing centers, janitorial and landscaping services.

Judge nixes bid to stop coal sales that Trump revived

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A judge threw out a lawsuit on Friday from a coalition of states, environmental groups and American Indians which sought to revive an Obama-era moratorium against U.S. government coal sales on public lands in the West.

U.S. District Judge Brian Morris said President Donald Trump's administration had fixed its initial failure to consider the environmental impacts of ending the moratorium.

The administration's opponents had argued it did not look closely enough at climate change and other effects from burning coal when it did an environmental analysis of the government's coal program.

But Morris said the completion of that analysis was enough to fulfill the administration's immediate legal obligations. Any review of whether the analysis was itself flawed would require a new lawsuit, he added.

Trump pledged to end the moratorium prior to being elected and in office has sought to boost the industry, despite market forces that have sharply curtailed mining.

Coal production has been dropping for years because of competition from cheaper fuels and pollution costs.

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the decline. But critics of the coal program note that lease sales have continued and say the administration’s moves could open tens of thousands of acres of public lands to new mining.

In a ruling last year, Morris had faulted the Interior Department for not considering potential damage to the environment when it lifted the moratorium. In response, Interior Department officials analyzed the potential effects from four leases sold under the Trump administration and concluded they would result in a negligible impact on climate change.

The four leases that were analyzed make up a small piece of a federal leasing program that accounts for about 40% of U.S. coal production, primarily from large strip mines in Western states.

Opponents of the leasing program included the Democratic attorneys general of California, New York, New Mexico and Washington state.

The mining industry and two coal states, Wyoming and Montana, joined the case on the side of the federal government. They said lawsuit inappropriately sought to use the court system as a “backdoor vehicle" to stop coal leasing after other branches of the federal government declined to take up their cause.

National Mining Association spokesman Conor Bernstein said industry group was pleased the court accepted the government's review as adequate, although it did not think it was necessary in the first place.

Initial bond for central Montana copper mine set at $4.6M

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Operators of a central Montana copper mine will be required to post a $4.6 million bond before construction can begin, the first of multiple bonds the company will need to pay to mine near White Sulphur Springs, state officials said.

The state Department of Environmental Quality announced the bond calculation Wednesday for the first phase of the Black Butte Copper Project after Sandfire Resources America satisfied environmental reviews for an operating permit, the Independent Record reported.

The money will be used as security to cover environmental cleanup costs should the company not complete required reclamation, officials said.

Sandfire Resources America is expected to post the bond and begin construction in June, senior vice president Jerry Zieg said. The company will finance its bonding in increments as multiple phases develop.

The first phase only includes construction on the surface including building a small reservoir, Zieg said.

“It’ll take us the rest of this year to complete that batch of work,” he said. “We won’t go underground or construct the portal until next year.”

The estimated total bonding for the Black Butte Copper Project has not yet been released but it is expected to operate for 13 years, company officials said.

The company is seeking about $300 million to develop the project and expects to bring in about $2 billion, CEO Rob Scargill said. About half of the expected revenue would stay in Montana in the form of taxes, wages, leases and other services.

Opponents of the mine have argued against its proximity to Smith River, one of the state’s most popular recreational rivers, referencing ongoing mining pollution in other parts of the state that occurred when companies went bankrupt and state and federal agencies had to take over cleanup efforts.

Supporters of the mine said modern mining techniques would protect environmental concerns.

Montana's unemployment rate in April reaches 11.3%

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate soared to 11.3% in April as the full effect of the coronavirus began to take its toll on the economy, marking the highest jobless rate in the state in more than four decades.

Total employment, which includes payroll, agricultural and self-employed workers, decreased by nearly 56,000 jobs in April, labor officials and the governor's office said Friday.

“While we are not immune to the significant economic challenges facing the nation, we are working every day to safely reopen and ensure Montana stays on a path to long-term economic recovery," Gov. Steve Bullock said in a statement. "There is still a lot of work to do, and we are dedicated to maintaining a healthy workforce, while continuing to provide immediate economic relief for Montana families and businesses who are hurting.”

Nearly 18,000 residents have returned to work since retailers were allowed to reopen in late April, state officials said.

Montana's previous high unemployment rate was 8.8% from January through May of 1983, during a recession. State unemployment records date back to 1976.

The unemployment rate on Montana's Indian reservations range from 10.3% on the Flathead reservation to 22.8% on the Rocky Boy's reservation. The national unemployment rate was 14.7% in April.

The governor has announced Montana will begin its second phase of economic reopening on June 1. That includes the possibility of more capacity in bars and restaurants and the lifting of a 14-day quarantine for out-of-state visitors.

Rural bankers survey index remains low in face of outbreak

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — A new survey of bankers in rural parts of 10 Plains and Western states inched upward in May from April’s record low, but still remained profoundly low as efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the rural economy.

The overall index for the region rose slightly to 12.5 from April’s record low of 12.1. Any score below 50 suggests a shrinking economy, while a score above 50 suggests a growing economy, survey organizers say.

Creighton University economist Ernie Goss, who oversees the survey, said nearly three of every four bankers surveyed reported restructuring farm loans to deal with weak farm income.

“As a result of the restructuring, bank CEOs expect farm loan defaults to expand by only 5.4% in the next 12 months,” Goss said.

The survey’s confidence index, which measures how bankers feel about the economy over the next six months, sank to 22.1 from April’s 27.4 based on bankers' observations of weak agriculture commodity prices and layoffs.

The borrowing index slipped to 72.2 from April’s 75.8.

Bankers from Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming were surveyed.

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