Senate confirms environmentalist

Sen. Taylor fails to block nomination to Public Utilities Commission

— District 8 Sen. Jack Taylor was unsuccessful Thursday in his attempt to block the nomination of environmentalist Matt Baker to the Public Utilities Commission as being detrimental to the coal industry of northwest Colorado.

The Senate voted, 21-13, along mostly party lines to confirm Gov. Bill Ritter's appointment of Baker to the three-member regulatory agency, which oversees utility companies and decides rate cases.

"Mr. Baker has demonstrated clear opposition to the coal industry and has an anti-coal background," said Taylor, who convinced all but one of his fellow Republicans to vote against the appointment.

Sen. Steve Johnson of Fort Collins was the only Republican voting with a solid block of 20 Democrats in the confirmation vote.

Ritter's other nominee to the PUC, James Tarpey of Englewood, sailed through the Senate without opposition.

Baker, 43, left his 4-year job as executive director of Environment Colorado to accept the PUC appointment. He previously directed the Colorado Public Interest Research Group from 2001 to 2003.

During his confirmation hearing earlier this week, Baker defended his work both as a consumer advocate and a promoter of renewable energy alternatives to fossil fuels.

Taylor, whose District 8 is home to two coal-fired power plants, two surface coal mines and three underground coal mines, said Baker consistently has advocated for "the retirement of old plants and stopping construction of new ones."

"Seventy-two percent of the electricity in Colorado is coal-driven," Taylor said. "The tax base in the Hayden school district is about 70 percent from the Hayden station, and that doesn't include the mine. If we shut down the power plant, what's going to backfill the tax base?"

Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, countered that Baker, as one of the architects of Ritter administration's "new energy economy," has been a consistent advocate for clean coal technology.

"We recognize that we are not going to produce enough energy without coal, but we are going to harness new energy resources in Colorado," Schwartz said. "It has been the hard consistent work of individuals like Matt that have led to Colorado becoming a leader in renewable energy."

An industry spokesman said coal would not be affected by a pair of bills introduced in the Legislature that would re-write both federal and state laws governing uranium, molybdenum, gold and other hard rock mining in the state.

The Colorado Mining Industry is fighting House Bills 1161 and 1165 nonetheless.

The companion bills were prompted by a fight about plans for an in-situ uranium mine in northeastern Colorado's Weld County.

"We're on the verge of a new mining boom in Colorado, but it could leave behind a toxic legacy," said Rep. Randy Fisher, D-Fort Collins. "We need to encourage responsible mining practices and ensure that Colorado's communities and our waters are protected."

HB 1161, with bi-partisan sponsorship, would require all in-situ leach mining of uranium to restore all affected surface and groundwater to its pre-mining quality. It also would require applicants for in-situ leaching mining permits to notify landowners within three miles of the affected land.

The bill would allow the state's regulatory board to deny a permit if the applicant fails to demonstrate that the reclamation of both land and water will be accomplished.

Only Democrats are sponsoring the more-pervasive HB 1165, which would increase the regulatory authority of the state's Reclamation, Mining and Safety Board over all hard rock mining in Colorado.

Similar to last year's increased regulation on the oil and gas industry, HB 1165 would increase the size of the board to include the executive director of the Department of Public Health and Environment and at least one member representing local governments.

Stuart Sanderson of the Colorado Mining Association said the industry opposes both bills. He was particularly critical of a provision he said would give local governments veto power over mining operations and technologies.

"The (industry) has consistently supported strong state regulatory programs," Sanderson said. "We believe that decisions on matters of statewide interests such as the development of minerals should remain in the hands of technical experts with solid expertise and funding, rather than scattered throughout the various levels of local government."

Both bills were assigned to the House Committee on Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources, chaired by Rep. Kathleen Curry, D-Gunnison. She said the bill dealing with water quality would be heard first, but the broader regulatory bill needs more work.

"My strategy will be to look at the water bill first and tighten up the language in that," Curry said. "On the bigger questions of how do we structure the regulatory framework in general, I want to pull together some of the key players and think about the long term."

Curry's committee on Wednesday advanced two contentious bills that are being watched by Colorado's sportsmen and livestock groups.

House Bill 1069 will, for the first time, allow state Division of Wildlife officers to issue citations to violators of off-road vehicle regulations on federal lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

Curry said her bill, which now goes to the full House for debate, calls for an annual report to the Legislature on how well increased enforcement is working. She said the program would be ended in five years if it doesn't work.

The House Agriculture Committee also endorsed Rep. Wes McKinley's House Bill 1129 which would prohibit the Colorado State Fair from requiring exhibitors to fill out premises ID registration forms before they are allowed to sell their livestock.

The fair's decision last fall to apply to rule only to junior livestock exhibitors provoked a storm of controversy from parents of 4-H members and Future Farmers of America.

Several veterinarians, livestock producers and the Colorado Department of Agriculture defended the fair board's action as a necessary step toward tracking livestock in the event of a disease outbreak. Critics said the fair was only using the kids to force parents into the still-voluntary National Animal Identification Program.

(Editors note: A previous legislative story on the Division of Wildlife should have stated the division anticipates getting about $11.5 million in grants from Greater Outdoors Colorado during the next fiscal year. The division receives no money from the state's general fund.)

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