Statehouse Dems, Republicans eye environmental policy opportunities

by John Tomasic on December 14, 2016
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, front, announces that the federal government has canceled 25 leases for oil and gas wells on pristine federal land in Colorado during a news conference Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016, in the State Capitol in Denver. With the election of President-elect Donald Trump and the divided Colorado Legislature, General Assembly leaders are already sending cues that environmental policy will be a battleground topic during the 2017 legislative session.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, front, announces that the federal government has canceled 25 leases for oil and gas wells on pristine federal land in Colorado during a news conference Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016, in the state Capitol in Denver. With the election of President-elect Donald Trump and the divided Colorado Legislature, General Assembly leaders are already sending cues that environmental policy will be a battleground topic during the 2017 legislative session. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
State Senate Republican and Democratic leaders have signaled they will dedicate additional resources and attention next year to energy and environmental issues, but in the turbulent wake of the surprise election of Donald Trump as president, the news has observers wondering whether the party caucuses are simply shoring up positions or seeing new opportunity to move beyond long-established partisan territories.

Speculation launched at the end of November, when Senate Republicans announced they had formed a new Select Committee on Energy and Environment.

“I know people are kind of scratching their heads,” said committee Chairman Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction.”I can say that the committee will be less about passing legislation and more about gathering information and getting it right. We tend to send energy bills to committees to do instead of fully discussing them. So this committee is going to be about gathering information that is correct, the best information, and reporting it back to the people. We want to help educate lawmakers and, more important, to help educate the public.

“What I want is to have the media all over this stuff, frankly,” he said.”I’m telling the members of the caucus to get reporters from every outlet they can to come to the meetings.”

Scott said he thinks debate on energy and environmental issues has narrowed to unsatisfactory fallback positions. He said the Legislature needs to expand the conversation to address the rapidly evolving energy ecosystem, where energy demand and supply will soon look a great deal different than they do today. He said he thought the legislative conversation for years has been too narrow to make the most of the transition period we’re living through.

“We have got to plan for the future — and we will damn well need a complete energy portfolio,” he said.”We have people pouring into Colorado and we have really old power plants. Solutions are going to look a lot different in our economically struggling counties and in our Denver metro counties, where people are doing pretty well.”

Anticipating Trump

A release announcing the new committee said the move anticipated a shift in energy and environmental policy that will come with the Trump administration. The committee is designed, according to the release, to”shoulder some of the increased workload an evolving relationship with Washington could bring.”

Sources at the Capitol wouldn’t predict how Trump’s stated opposition to long-standing environmental and wildlife protections and his general dismissal of climate change science might specifically effect policy on the ground in Colorado.

Democrats are in a defensive crouch.

State Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, led a chorus of fellow Senate Democrats and supporters in lamenting what they characterized as obstructionism on the part of their Republican colleagues. (Photo by John Tomasic/The Colorado Statesman)
State Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, center with other legislative Democrats. (Photo by John Tomasic/The Colorado Statesman)
“Colorado has been at the forefront on moving toward cleaner energy and we don’t want to slide back,” said Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman, D-Denver.”We (Democrats) are going to hold strong in the Senate.”

Members of her caucus fear a full assault on clean energy development, and news from Washington and New York, where Trump is assembling his leadership team, isn’t easing their concerns.

Guzman pointed in particular to the fact that Trump has selected Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

As has been widely reported since the news broke, Pruitt worked closely with oil and gas companies and his state’s electric utility to spearhead multi-state opposition to the Obama administration Clean Power Plan, meant to address climate change, and other regulations designed to reduce air and water pollution. Pruitt’s Oklahoma is the site of intense oil and gas hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and has made national news for the steady drumbeat of earthquakes residents experience tied to oil and gas operations.

“Trump tapped a man to head the EPA whose state is being shaken by quakes caused by fracking,” said Guzman.”We have to be ready for whatever might come.”

Scott, an outspoken Trump supporter this election year, said that he expects the new administration to at least change the conversation around energy.

“We don’t know exactly what the president-elect will do, but the idea is to be proactive for a change and not reactive at the Legislature,” he said.”We have some idea what he will do based on his cabinet picks and his defense of coal during the campaign. So, OK, in recent years, it’s been determined fossil fuel is the worst thing on Earth. But we’re a fossil fuel economy, and oil and gas is far advanced. If you want to change energy sources, you get into the immediate question of cost.”

Scott was speaking from the road. He had been touring the Idaho National Laboratory, where scientists since 1949 have developed generations of nuclear reactors.

“What they’re doing up here is fascinating,” he said.”People think of nuclear power and they think of the huge plants from the 1970s, the enormous structures — and it’s scary as hell. But now it’s amazing. New micro-nuclear plants look like office buildings.”

Scott said a broader conversation would include more talk of nuclear and hydro power and more specific conversations about fossil fuels — such as how lawmakers might work to knock down barriers to exporting the coal still being mined in Colorado, to find out why power plants in the state burning coal aren’t burning Colorado coal, and how to better work with the federal government to better manage and benefit economically from public lands.

“Our Democratic friends run around with their hair on fire, saying we’re going to sell off the federal lands. That’s impossible. Thirty to 40 percent of land in Colorado is public land. That’s Colorado. Those lands are our crown jewel. We know how to do this. We have tough regulations on those lands. We want to talk about all this stuff,” Scott said.

Guzman welcomes the conversation and is looking forward to public testimony.

“I think we’ll gain greater insights and share more information, and I think the public benefits any time they are asked to participate,” she said.”I think ideas could come out of the committee that could gain the kind of middle ground support you need to win in Colorado.”

At the Capitol next year, Republicans will control the Senate and Democrats will control the House. Hard-line energy and environmental proposals, as in past years where power has been shared between the parties, will go nowhere.

An overdue development

In many ways, it seems past time to form an energy and environment committee. Until now, the issues were weighed in the Senate’s Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee.

State Rep. Kevin Priola talks with another Senate District 25 voter on a shady Brighton neighborhood street.

But interest in energy and environmental policy has accelerated in Colorado as it has across the country and around the world in the era of climate change and historic oil and gas industry profits. Indeed, Colorado is both a top mineral extraction state as well as a top conservation, climate science, outdoor recreation and renewable energy state. It’s a place where think-tank formulations and tech and business model research and development come to life and meet the everyday realities of residents.

Nearly every year, Colorado sees major rule-making and legislative battles on how best to boost energy-industry employment, thin metro-region smog, clean up mountain and stream mining waste, protect wildlife and water supplies, address neighborhood oil and gas drilling and generate cheaper, cleaner electric power.

Energy and environmental issues draw the interest of Colorado voters and activists as well as the attention of national special interests groups and campaign donors who regularly spend vast sums in the state.

Senate Democrats had been planning their own version of an energy and environment committee for months, but they fell one seat short of winning the majority.

Now Guzman and Sen. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, will join Scott and his colleagues John Cooke, R-Greeley, and Kevin Priola, R-Brighton, on the Republican committee.

Guzman also announced last week that she was appointing Jones to a newly created position titled Deputy Minority Leader for Conservation, Clean Energy, and Climate Change.

Like Scott, Jones hopes the committee wi

By Ray Scott

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