An unlikely coalition for Clean Air Act

A lesson in political bipartisanship and coalition building

By Anthony Bowe
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Gov. Bill Ritter capped a brief but intense lobbying fight Monday when he signed the Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act into law, catapulting natural gas as a future priority in Colorado.

Republicans Sen. Josh Penry and Rep. Ellen Roberts, from left, and Democratic Sen. Bruce Whitehead watch Gov. Ritter sign the Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act on Monday.
Photo by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman

“There you go,” the governor said quietly after he signed the bill and began shaking hands at the base of the state capitol’s west steps.

The signing of House Bill 1365 attracted a set of bipartisan lawmakers, environmentalists, Xcel Energy executives and natural gas advocates. Ritter praised them all for creating an unlikely political coalition to propel the bill forward.

“The naysayers said there was no way environmentalists, gas companies and a giant utility company could work together on something that was so ground breaking,” the governor said. “The naysayers said there was no way a Republican like Josh Penry and a Democrat like Bill Ritter could work together on something so progressive, but we got it done.”

HB 1365, sponsored by Reps. Judy Solano, D-Brighton, and Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, requires Xcel Energy, the state’s largest utility, to reformat three front-range coal-fired power generation plants to produce natural gas by 2018.

“Robert Kennedy Jr. has said this bill will be a model for other states and for Congress. HB 1365 gives us a chance to clean the air, to create jobs and to improve the health of our children,” Solano said. “The bottom line is that we’re not waiting for Washington’s federal regulations. We are solving the problem on our own, on Colorado terms — today.”

Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, says so many Republicans supported the bill because of ‘more drilling, less federal intrusion’ in Colorado.
Photo by Jody Hope Strogoff
The Colorado Statesman

Xcel must submit a plan to the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) by Aug. 15, detailing how it will retire or retrofit 900 megawatts of coal-fired capacity. Natural gas will be the primary energy used, but Xcel could opt to use other alternatives as well.

“This is just a start of the process that’ll determine what we’re going to do. We haven’t specifically named plants,” said Dick Kelly, chairman of the board and chief executive officer at Xcel, regarding which coal plants would be targeted for the transfer to a cleaner energy source.

The PUC and Xcel have 17 weeks following the submission of the plan to begin implementation phases. To meet that deadline, PUC has requested that the utility begin compiling data, such as emission tests on plants and the various costs to make changes at plants. PUC spokesman Terry Bote said the commission is usually given around seven months to implement utility plans.

“This is a very big deal,” said Ron Binz, PUC Chairman. “Our decision in this case will affect air quality, consumer prices, and greenhouse gas emissions for years to come. Because the statutory time frames are so compressed, we need to start the information flow now, instead of waiting for the utilities to file their plans.”

Environmental groups praised the state’s progressive attitude.

“We are at a real crossroads — we can either continue to try to make 19th century solutions work to meet 21st century energy challenges, or we can make a fundamental shift now in how we power our future,” said Pam Kiely, program director with Environment Colorado.

Pete Maysmith, executive director of Colorado Conservation Voters, who spoke at the bill signing ceremony said, “This legislation is a badly needed breath of fresh air in the effort to move Colorado away from coal and toward a cleaner and healthier energy future.”

The Colorado Mining Association, a trade group representing the state’s coal industry, condemned the new law Monday. Stuart Sanderson, CMA president, complained that the coal industry was left out of negotiations. He said the bill was rushed through the Legislature to deter detractors from mounting much opposition. The bill’s fast-tracked cycle through the General Assembly to the governor’s desk took only 17 days.

Tisha Conoly Schuller, president of the state’s Oil & Gas Association, voices her support.
Photo by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman

“If you combine the secret negotiations with the way this thing was rushed through without any real study or meaningful opportunity for debate — this is not an appropriate way to make policy,” Sanderson said. “Especially a policy that’s going to affect the livelihoods of the state workers and the rates that are going to be paid by consumers.”

Sanderson said compromise amendments on the bill introduced by senate Republicans and supported by the CMA were all voted down. CMA wanted the measure converted into a study bill to determine whether it made fiscal and economic sense.

“There was no study, there was no analysis done about what the economic impacts would be,” he said. “They relied largely on the rather serendipitous promises and predictions of the natural gas industry, which of course stands to claim a giant windfall from this legislation.

“The citizens of this state have been let down.”

Sanderson warns energy consumers to expect higher bills since “the cost of natural gas exceeds that of coal by 300 (percent).”

Xcel acknowledged that consumer rates would eventually increase approximately four to six percent to accommodate natural gas.

“We’d like to keep it lower than that but that’s what we’re shooting for,” Kelly said. “But that’s a very legitimate concern — something we’re worried about also.”

Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton and a House sponsor, says the bill has national implications.
Photo by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman

With coal exports in Colorado hampered by the slumping economy, experts speculate whether the industry — which employs over 2,300 coal workers — can recover from another blow. According to CMA, 42 percent of Colorado coal is sold within the state.

“It’s going to have a negative impact on the economy of northwestern Colorado — there’s no question about it,” said Sen. Al White, a Republican representing Senate District 8, which includes the counties of Eagle, Garfield, Jackson, Moffat, Rio Blanco and Routt. “It’s going to cost coal jobs anywhere from 125 to 200 minor jobs at Twentymile mine.

“Those sales will be lost and won’t be replaced with sales to the east as has been suggested. Sales to the east have actually been declining from Colorado and Wyoming.”

Twentymile mine, located in Craig, sends over two million tons of coal to Front Range plants, White said.

Conversely, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association said the legislation will boost the natural gas industry.

“Our industry makes up more than 6 percent of the labor economy in Colorado,” said Tisha Conoly Schuller, the group’s president. “Because these are good paying jobs, that’s over 7 percent of the state’s economy.

“And as a bonus, it’s clean burning.”

Gov. Bill Ritter, Colorado Oil & Gas Association President Tisha Conoly Schuller, Xcel Energy Chairman & CEO Dick Kelly, and Pete Maysmith of Colorado Conservation Voters gather for the signing of HB 1365 on Monday.
Photo by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman

Clearing the front range of smog and pollution became a priority to supporters of the Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act. The law calls for an 80 percent reduction of nitrogen oxide gases at front range plants by 2017, which could force more than just three Xcel coal plants to start using natural gas.

“It provides us with an opportunity to diversify our state’s energy portfolio and to improve the health of our citizens,” said Sen. Bruce Whitehead, D-Hesperus. Whitehead joined other lawmakers Monday in crediting the measure for possibly helping Colorado avoid future federal mandates regulating air quality standards.

Whitehead teamed with Senate Minority Leader Penry, R-Grand Junction, as a sponsor on the bill to garner bipartisan support in the senate. Penry is among several Republicans driving to unseat Whitehead in this year’s election. Roberts, the bill’s sponsor in the house, is vying for the Republican primary in the district.

“It was a strange bedfellows scenario where people with different approaches on these issues came together because public policy just made sense,” Penry said.

The senate passed the Clean Air-Clean Jobs bill by a 20-13 vote last week, with support from Penry and Sens. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, and Ken Kester, R-Las Animas. Republican Sens. Shawn Mitchell of Broomfield, and Keith King of Colorado Springs led the charge against the bill.

“More drilling, less federal intrusion in Colorado — that’s the reason so many Republicans supported this bipartisan compromise,” Penry said.

Ritter was humble in praising the bill’s bipartisanship after initially fumbling his comments during the signing ceremony.

“This is clearly a diverse, partisan — excuse me — bi-partisan group of people,” Ritter said to laughter. “The one chance to say bi-partisan and I blew it.”

Anthony@coloradostatesman.com