Gov. Bill Ritter: Keys to state's economic recovery

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Bill Ritter

These clearly are difficult economic times everywhere. Nearly every economic sector, industry, business and family is struggling.

Without a doubt, tough times still lie ahead.

But, I know Colorado will win the race out of the recession. I know we'll emerge stronger and be better positioned for the future because, together, we have established a long-term vision and strategy to get us there.

Just look at our advantages:

• We have one of the best-educated workforces in the country.

• Our universities and colleges are leaders in developing careers in knowledge-based industries of the future such as energy, aerospace, bioscience and technology.

• We have one of the best tourism industries in the country because of the natural beauty, abundant wildlife and endless recreation opportunities on the Western Slope.

• We've become a national and worldwide leader with our New Energy Economy. And let me be clear - the Western Slope's clean-burning natural gas sector is a key part of the New Energy Economy.

If we develop these reserves in a sustainable way, we will help our country achieve energy security, and we'll help create sustainable economies and communities on the Western Slope.

The Western Slope will be a vital part of how our state moves ahead. Yes, the Western Slope and all of Colorado face incredible challenges, especially for families who have lost jobs or health care or homes.

I understand this from a very personal level. There were times when my dad, who was a construction worker and a farmer, couldn't find work and couldn't make any money. There were times when my mom put dinner on the table using food stamps.

But, even in these difficult times, we are still seeing bright spots and opportunities - because we put a strategy in place and we have a plan for coming out of this downturn.

I am confident the oil-and-gas industry will continue to be one of the leading Western Slope and Colorado industries for decades to come.

Last month, Williams Energy drilled its 3,000th well in Western Colorado, and the company is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on capital projects. Also last month, the state received a record 1,100 drilling permit applications, and companies already have 5,000 more permits in hand and ready to go in 2009.

Clearly, they're planning for the future.

The new rules adopted by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conversation Commission, developed with valuable input from many people on the Western Slope, will help continue to create a reliable economic foundation for the entire state.

I believe these rules will allow the industry to grow and move forward in a sustainable, 21st century way that is compatible with other Western Slope sectors like tourism and recreation. I believe these rules strike the right balance, a balance that recognizes the importance of a healthy industry and the importance of healthy communities, water supplies and wildlife.

Responsible and forward-thinking companies - big companies such as EnCana and Williams and smaller operators such as Gunnison Energy - already have been true leaders in a best-practices approach to drilling and exploration.

They embody the spirit of a sustainable Colorado these rules hope to achieve. And congratulations to Gunnison Energy for completing the first comprehensive energy development plan under the new rules - before the rules even took effect.

I know that these tough economic times have not spared any industry, including oil and gas. We all know there are bigger forces at work on the industry, forces such as global commodity prices, pipeline capacity and a tight credit market. These forces are impacting rig counts all across the country.

In the past seven months, rigs are down 64 percent in Utah and New Mexico, 57 percent in Texas and 52 percent in Colorado.

Recognizing all of this, I have directed my administration to move swiftly and strongly to help develop Colorado's natural gas for use here in Colorado and across the country.

We've asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to speed up approval of the Ruby Pipeline Project. We're working on legislation that would extend a hybrid vehicle tax credit to compressed natural gas cars and trucks. We're talking to the Bureau of Land Management about methane-capture opportunities for the proposed Red Cliff mine - a mine that could generate 250 new jobs.

We're talking with Xcel Energy about using the Cameo power plant as a pilot project for a 1-megawatt coal and concentrated solar facility.

We're talking to a natural-gas company called Clean Energy about filing a joint application with the Department of Energy for a $12.5 million grant. The grant would help build six natural-gas fueling stations around the state - including one in Grand Junction and one in Edwards - mainly for commercial vehicles such as trash trucks, buses and commercial fleets.

I'm optimistic about the future of the energy industry, the future of the Western Slope and the future of Colorado. Together, we're leading Colorado forward and positioning ourselves for a strong recovery.

We're going to see more than $7 billion flow to Colorado from the federal recovery act in direct funding and tax relief. Much of those funds are coming to the Western Slope, including:

• $100 million for highway, transit and airport projects - including the airport in Grand Junction - and $4 million for weatherization projects on the Western Slope.

• $2 million for Western Slope work force development, youth and summer jobs programs, and job-training and re-training programs.

• $11.5 million for higher-education institutions on the Western Slope.

A few weeks ago, I signed the FASTER transportation bill into law. This legislation will help us create thousands of jobs and fix unsafe roads and bridges, including 20 structurally deficient bridges on the Western Slope.

These are all part of our strategy for leading Colorado forward. There's no going back to the past or the old ways of doing business. This is a new era and a new time with new opportunities that we must capitalize on.

Working together, we can create sustainable jobs and communities so that Colorado emerges from the downturn stronger and more prosperous than ever.

Bill Ritter is Colorado's 41st governor.

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