Northwest Colorado energy debates heat up
State Rep. Randy Baumgardner discusses proposed changes to oil, gas commission
April 12, 2011
By the numbers
Oil and gas drilling permits issued in Colorado
2011 (as of April 7): 1,166
Source: Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission
Steamboat Springs — Two energy-related bills are fueling debates in Denver and creating a diplomatic tightrope for at least one Northwest Colorado legislator.
State Rep. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, said House Bill 1291 — a late-session bill introduced March 29 — could indirectly create more legislative battles about policy adopted last year to convert some Front Range power plants from coal to natural gas. The bill would give approval to regional haze components of a state air-quality plan and, because of its relation to Front Range power plant conversions, is viewed by the coal industry as another potential blow to already challenged coal markets.
"It ratifies the plans to shut down coal-generating units," Stuart Sanderson, president of the Colorado Mining Association, said Tuesday about HB 1291. "We are opposed to that legislation because it actually goes beyond what federal law requires."
HB 1291 earned approval Monday in the state House of Representatives. The bill has been assigned to a Senate committee.
Baumgardner, a Hot Sulphur Springs Republican who represents Routt County and House District 57, discussed the bill during a Sunday meeting hosted by the Routt County CattleWomen at Bud Werner Memorial Library in Steamboat Springs.
He said if HB 1291 passes — a scenario he deemed likely — it could spur challenges pushed by the Colorado Mining Association.
"There would be another (bill) coming," Baumgardner said. "That's what I've heard."
Debates about Front Range power plant conversions spread during the past year from the state Capitol to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission and other venues, as coal industry representatives opposed changes they called damaging to the industry.
The power plant conversions received strong support outside the coal industry, however, from entities including environmental groups and, of course, the natural gas industry. Some critics of the legislation said it unfairly used government to not only pit one industry against another, but also to essentially choose a winner.
Sanderson declined to comment directly Tuesday about whether HB 1291 could present another front in that battle.
"We support any legislative revisions that would modify (HB 1291) to allow coal-generating units to continue to operate," Sanderson said.
Baumgardner said the continued pitting of natural gas against coal, industries that are vital to the region he represents, presents challenges for himself and state Sen. Jean White, R-Hayden.
"We're in a twist," Baumgardner said.
White couldn't be reached late Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Baumgardner also is tied to another energy-related debate.
He's a co-sponsor of House Bill 1223, which would increase oil and gas industry representation on the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. The nine-member commission administers statewide regulation of oil and natural gas development.
HB 1223 would reverse changes to the commission made in 2007, during the administration of former Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat. Those changes increased the commission from seven to nine members, by adding the executive directors of Colorado's natural resources and public health and the environment departments. They also reduced the number of commission members with substantial experience in the oil and gas industry from five to three.
Baumgardner said Sunday that a lack of oil and gas experience is damaging the commission.
"It would be a better representation of the commission to have people who are knowledgeable about the industry," Baumgardner told a small crowd.
Routt County Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush argued that point, saying the oil and gas commission has been much more balanced — and collaborative — since the 2007 changes.
"We have people who have a variety of opinions, not just the industry's opinion," Mitsch Bush said.
She noted that drilling permits have increased in Routt County and remained strong statewide.
"You can issue all the permits you want to, but if you're not drilling, it doesn't matter," Baumgardner responded.
Leland Swenson, executive vice president of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, attended Sunday's meeting at the library and noted that HB 1223 was amended April 4, reducing the proposed changes.
The bill was introduced in the House, which has a Republican majority, and could face challenges in the Democrat-controlled state Senate.
In its current, unofficial form, which has been sent to a House committee, the bill would keep the commission at nine voting members but return the number of oil and gas industry representatives to the pre-2007 number of five.
"The composition is very industry-heavy, to the point where it's sort of like the fox guarding the henhouse," Mitsch Bush said.
Swenson acknowledged the point, before making a comment about the proposed changes that also could apply to energy debates as a whole.
"There's still a question of balance," he said.