Energy debate pits Peña, Owens as stand-ins for the Obama and Romney campaigns

The Colorado Statesman

Former Denver Mayor Federico Peña, a Democrat, and former Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican, served as surrogates for President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, respectively, on Tuesday, painting stark differences between the two candidates on energy issues.

The debate on the Auraria campus was sponsored by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and industry stakeholders, from oil and gas proponents as well as those serving the alternative side of the energy industry, including solar and wind resources.

Owens, who served as executive director of the Colorado Petroleum Association and as executive vice president of the Rocky Mountain Oil and Gas Association early in his career, hit the president hard on the Department of Energy’s loan guarantee program, which was heavily scrutinized following the failure of solar company Solyndra, which had received government-sponsored lending. Owens said that because the president does not have a background in the private business sector, he is not qualified to be supporting such government programs.

The former Colorado governor even suggested that Obama utilizes government loan programs to woo prospective campaign and political contributors.

“I’m concerned that the president seemingly, in some cases, places these taxpayer dollars with companies that have been politically, or economically helpful to his administration, or to his campaign,” Owens said to a packed audience at Tivoli Turnhalle.

He also questioned the president’s commitment to domestic energy production, stating that oil and gas development leasing on federal land is decreasing. Owens said the amount of revenue brought in from new leasing has gone from $9.5 billion to $37 million, and that the time to receive an application for a permit to drill is up to 307 days, compared to 200 days under Republican President George W. Bush’s administration. In comparison, it takes about 19 days to receive that application in Colorado, said Owens.

“It’s a shame that in a country where 30 percent of this country is owned by the federal government, that we don’t do more to emphasize and utilize those resources for natural gas and oil and coal and all the other development…” said Owens. “We should be using these federal lands.”

Romney has unveiled an energy plan that he says would make North America energy independent by 2020. The plan includes utilizing federal lands, opening offshore areas for development, pursuing a North American energy partnership, ensuring accurate assessment of energy resources, restoring “fairness and transparency” to permitting and regulation, and facilitating private development of new energy technologies.

But Peña, who also served as the secretary of energy under Democratic President Bill Clinton, said the president is focused on domestic energy through not only production, but also savings. He pointed out that the new national standard for fuel efficiency for cars and light trucks will save the nation 2.2 million barrels of oil per day by 2025.

“No other president; no other administration has had that kind of success,” said Peña, who serves as a co-chair on Obama’s national campaign.

He added that Romney’s plan includes a focus on handing the authority of rules and regulations over to individual states, which Peña fears would create a patchwork of energy regulation that would only add to uncertainty.

Colorado is in the midst of its own battle over energy regulation as it pertains to local control. State attorneys for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission are suing the city of Longmont after the city enacted its own rules and regulations pertaining to the controversial drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing.

The state is arguing that Longmont does not have the authority to enact such regulations, and that it would create complexity and confusion. For similar reasons, Peña does not believe such authority should be handed down from the federal government to the states.

“While we respect the work of state regulators, we think that it would be a mistake to turn this over completely to the state and have 50 different standards for the oil and gas industry across the United States,” he said.

Peña also pointed out that when Obama appointed former U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., as the interior secretary, the administration first needed to address corruption and mismanagement within the Minerals Management Service. The department faced increasing criticism over lax oversight of drilling and cozy ties with the energy industry. The suburban Denver-based MMS also faced allegations of cocaine use and sexual misconduct.

Salazar restructured MMS, dividing it into three separate entities.

“You might remember the MMS, said Peña. “It was in disarray; it was incompetent; it had ethical problems. Secretary Salazar had to go in there and blow it up.”

But Owens said it is time for the Obama administration to accept its own responsibility.

“I didn’t look back at Gov. [Roy] Romer on every issue I had and said, ‘I inherited this,’” Owens said of his predecessor. “I never once did that. When you’re elected president or governor, it’s your responsibility, and you accept it.”

Following the debate, energy industry representatives weighed in. Those representing alternative energy agreed with Peña and the Obama campaign, while traditional energy producers spoke of a new way forward with Romney.

“If you look at the number of jobs in Colorado that have been created, especially in the wind and solar industries, I would say that what the Obama Administration has done is supported the growth of these type of jobs, and I don’t get the sense that Governor Romney would support those incentives like the Obama campaign has,” said Christine Shapard, executive director of the Colorado Cleantech Industry Association, following the debate.

Pete Maysmith, executive director of Colorado Conservation Voters, agreed, suggesting that Owens — representing the Romney campaign — continued mixed messaging on the campaign’s part, which has flipped from not taking climate change seriously to making it a priority, according to Maysmith.

“One day climate change is a joke at the Republican National Convention and now today they say Romney is going to do something about it,” Maysmith said. “While we appreciate Romney’s change of heart in tackling carbon pollution — his energy plan solely promotes dirty fossil fuels and he has been adamant in opposing clean wind energy.”

But John Harpole, president of Mercator Energy and a member of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association board, called the Obama campaign’s messaging on energy policy shifty.

“This is the greatest revisionist history to blame the decrease in drilling permits and revenue on federal lands on what happened at MMS…” said Harpole.

Peter@coloradostatesman.com