By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
Gubernatorial candidates agreed that oil and gas production is crucial to Colorado’s economic wellbeing — but they differed on how to revitalize the industry at the 22nd Annual Rocky Mountain Energy Epicenter Conference at the Colorado Convention Center this week. The candidates seized the opportunity to pump their positions and expertise — and drill holes in the credibility of opponents.
Republican candidate Scott McInnis, former 3rd District Congressman, slammed Democratic candidate Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper for switching his position on revamping the state’s oil and gas regulations. GOP challenger Dan Maes swiped at Governor Bill Ritter, who is not seeking re-election, for driving a green energy agenda that created an unequal playing field in the industry.
Nearly 400 people attended the forum and luncheon in the Halliburton-Four Seasons ballroom on Wednesday. The event was part of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association’s four-day energy summit that drew industry members from Colorado and nearby states. After the candidates gave a five-minute opening statement, followup questions were posed by author and television political reporter Adam Schrager.
Like striking oil, the gusher erupted when McInnis used his opening statement to accuse Hickenlooper of changing his position on the state’s gas and oil regulations.
“Colorado needs a governor who is consistent — consistent when they talk to you and consistent when they talk to the Sierra Club. Who is consistent when they’re in Grand Junction talking to the roughnecks down there and consistent over here talking at the Denver Athletic Club,” declared McInnis.
“The mayor of Denver has agreed with me on a number of occasions until he switched sides this week,” asserted McInnis. “Up until this week the mayor agreed with Scott McInnis, saying ‘you know the rules are excessive.’”
McInnis said that some of the rules are good, but others overreach and have driven companies out of the state — and that has resulted in a loss of thousands of jobs. Others contend those losses were caused primarily by the national recession that caused the stock market collapse in 2008.
“The mayor agreed with me,” insisted McInnis, who read a newspaper article that quoted Hickenlooper as saying that some of the new rules are partially responsible for the loss of drilling rigs and jobs over the past three years.
McInnis then read Hickenlooper’s opinion piece published this week in the Grand Junction Sentinel.
“Both of my opponents want to rewrite the rules, but that would be a mistake,” wrote Hickenlooper. “I would not throw out or rollback rules regulating gas extraction in our state.”
Hickenlooper told the audience that he doesn’t support rewriting the rules and regulations because it would create instability in the industry and it could result in lawsuits filed against the state.
“I do think that some of the rules went too far… but I don’t think there’s a need for an overhaul,” he said.
The Denver mayor conceded that there is a need to customize the regulations for individual areas in the state, but that can be accomplished by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission that has the power to examine and modify regulations as issues arise. Essentially, the commission could grant waivers to the rules and regulations for specific entities.
Hickenlooper’s opinion seemed to echo his statements at a forum last month sponsored by the Denver Petroleum Club. But there, he also vowed to “cut every possible piece of unnecessary red tape you can cut.”
“Predictably is the base of recovery,” said Hickenlooper. The mayor said that he understands complaints from industry members but balances those with environmental concerns and the development of clean natural gas and alternative energy sources.
Schrager asked if Hickenlooper had wavered from his past statements about the rules and regulations.
“I’m not waffling at all!” protested Hickenlooper.
Maes blamed the loss of industry jobs on the “green agenda” pushed by Ritter, particularly the passage of the bi-partisan state House Bill 10-1365, the Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act.
The bill, sponsored by Reps. Judy Solano, D-Brighton, and Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, and Sens. Al Whitehead, D-Hesperus, and Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, sets an ambitious time line to reduce air pollution, stimulate jobs and utilize cleaner energy sources.
The Act requires Xcel Energy to decrease pollutants by retiring, retrofitting or repowering coal-fired power plants on the Front Range by the end of 2017, and utilizing natural gas and other lower- or non-emitting energy sources.
“I don’t think the governor belongs in the business of picking favorites in any industry,” declared Maes. “There is no doubt in my mind that the governor played favorites — he has an agenda.”
Promoting his 25 years in business, Maes described Ritter as a typical politician with a personal agenda and who “didn’t have the skill set” to deal with the tough economic challenges.
Maes said he does not object to alternative energy sources if they’re developed without government subsidies. He said that entities in Baca County are welcome to build wind turbines, but they should compete in the marketplace and become profitable without government funding.
McInnis said he supports the development of alternative fuels, such as wind and solar power, but he also wants an even playing field in the marketplace. Both Republicans equated HB 10-1365 as government determining winners and losers in the industry — and in this case, the loser might be the clean coal sector.
“It’s not the social engineering industry — it’s the oil and gas industry,” said McInnis of the push for green energy. The audience burst into applause and cheers.
Hickenlooper praised the Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act that has been supported by energy producers and conservationists. The Act will not only reduce air pollution and expedite the use of clean energy sources, he said it will “stave off draconian regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency” that enforces air quality standards.
Maes and McInnis suggested changing the makeup of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to ensure members have industry expertise. Hickenlooper didn’t see any reason to change the commissioner requirements.
“You want to make sure there’s no bias or animosity” among the commission members, said Hickenlooper, who firmly believes that solutions evolve naturally from cohesive groups.
Six of the nine commissioners’ terms expire in July 2011.