Big Pivots: Missing were the stories of promise and opportunity
U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert and her challenger, Adam Frisch, debated on Saturday evening at a forum in Grand Junction sponsored by Club 20. Frisch tried to define Boebert as a legislator who talks a lot but gets nothing done. Boebert suggested Frisch would be a puppet of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. This was the expected.
More surprising was how much of the debate revolved around climate change and energy paradigms. Frisch said he believes climate change is an urgent matter, while Boebert characterized Frisch as a “green new deal elitist.” She vaguely suggested his positions, if pursued, would result in “sacrificing American families at the altar of climate change.”
At times, I found myself wanting to leap into my computer screen and onto the dais at Colorado Mesa University. Hard punching entertains, but absent were words that inspired, that told of possibilities. I heard fear, grievance, and anger — and not just a few clichés. Where was there talk about opportunities in this energy transition? Where were the bold visions? Where were the instructive stories?
Let’s talk about Pueblo, the largest city in the Third Congressional District. Some of us grew up hearing Pueblo called the “Pittsburgh of the West.” Coal was hauled from mines near and far, including those above Redstone, in Pitkin County, to power the steel mill. Beginning in the 1980s, though, Pueblo’s economy tilted as the global marketplace for steel shifted. Employment dropped, and Pueblo — long the second largest city in Colorado — faltered as cities along the northern Front Range prospered and grew.
City leaders set out to diversify their economy. Among the foundations is “green energy.” This includes one of the nation’s premier factories manufacturing wind towers.
Pueblo also can boast of what was, when completed in November 2021, very likely the largest solar farm east of the Rockies. That electricity will power a $500 million plant now under construction that will deliver what the big railroads want, half-mile-long rails. This will be a solar-powered steel mill.
Problems remain. Pueblo still has hard edges, a high poverty rate. Too many windows on Main Street are boarded up. Xcel Energy has agreed to pay property taxes on Comanche 3, Colorado’s youngest and largest coal-burning unit to 2040, although it will be retired at least a decade earlier. But the property tax base remains a puzzle not completely solved.
Still, this is a jewel to be cut and polished. It’s a story that inspires.
Several of our resort towns have reinvented themselves. Crested Butte was a coal-mining town that supplied Pueblo prior. After that career ended, it became a winter and then summer resort.
Aspen had a more dramatic rise — and tumble. In 1885, as mansions for the silver barons were erected, it gained hydro-powered street lights, the first place between the Mississippi and San Francisco. Just a few years later federal subsidies for silver ended. But what one book described as “The Quiet Years” ended long ago, as innovators and entrepreneurs figured out how to make a living from the snow that had likely annoyed the miners.
Again, that’s not to deny Aspen’s problems. It’s hard to square carbon reduction goals with private jets. And the affordable housing problem that I have been tracking for 30 years gets worse and worse. But even Craig seems to have an affordable housing issue: the motel that I so lovingly patronized, each room a distinctive theme honoring some outdoor critter, now has been converted into long-term units.
Hope lingers in both Craig and in some quarters of Pueblo that nuclear will replace the tax base and jobs of the coal plants. Maybe, but had I been on stage in Grand Junction I would have pointed out that considerable money is being spent in both Wyoming and Idaho to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of the new generation of modular nuclear reactors. Why spend Colorado taxpayer money to do the same? So far, the figures don’t look good. We’re talking high costs, expensive power. Again, this may change, but any honest conversation must acknowledge those costs.
With the limited time slots, I might not have worked in a clarification about drought in the Colorado River Basin. We’ve had drought, but something else that won’t go away: aridification. This has been caused by accompanied rising temperatures, which have also made forests more flammable.
Huge challenges face us, but those adversities also provide room for creativity and innovation, spaces for entrepreneurs to thrive. That’s the bold, inspiring vision I wish I had heard laid out at the Club 20 debate.
Allen Best produces Big Pivots, an e-journal that chronicles energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. He can be found at BigPivots.com.
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