What’s behind Weld County’s mantra: ‘We don’t get no respect’?

The Colorado Statesman

The senior member of Colorado’s Congressional delegation usually serves as the state’s informal caucus Dean, but the identity of the “go to” office when you actually need something accomplished in Washington shifts over time. While I served in the Legislature, and for nearly two decades, that honor belonged to Denver’s Patricia Schroeder. It wasn’t unusual for Republican legislators to pull me aside at the Capitol to ask whether I could get one of their constituent’s problems with Social Security or the Veterans Administration in the hands of Schroeder’s staff. Such effectiveness is partly a matter of seniority, serving in the majority or sharing the same political affiliation as the President or enjoying the right committee assignments; but even more important is a crackerjack office operation and staff that will reliably follow through.

It might prove unworkable in today’s communications environment of trending tweets and blast emails, but Schroeder enforced a practice that no one could leave the office for home until every call received that day was returned. The contact might be nothing more than a simple acknowledgement that a message had been received, but it triggered a tracking process aimed at the swift resolution of each inquiry.  Whether you were seeking an appropriations earmark for a local project or needed a good swift kick administered to a recalcitrant bureaucracy, the Congresswoman was a Coloradan’s best bet for a prompt and positive resolution.

Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway, a self-described country boy who can dance while sitting inside his car, wants his county leaders to have an equal seat at the“big boys policy table.

For eight years following the 2000 election, her mantle passed to the staff of Senator Wayne Allard. If you wanted something done during the Bush years, Allard’s office was the place to visit. Managing these tasks was his chief-of-staff, Sean Conway. I first met Sean as a Fort Lewis College intern assigned to the Colorado House. Conway is now in his fifth year as an at-large member of the Weld County Commission. It isn’t surprising that after Allard was first elected to Congress, Conway recalls that he learned a lot from Schroeder’s office about working across the aisle. “We didn’t agree on many of the big issues, but when it came to taking care of Colorado, her staff was a pleasure to work with,” he reminisced last week. “Neither office asked whether you were a Democrat or a Republican, we just tried to help people wherever we could.”

Sean sports the same neo-Beatles, ‘mop top’ haircut today that he did in college. At age 53, and a ‘near thing’ colon cancer survivor, he’s tougher and smarter about his politics than most local elected officials. He drives a 20-year-old Northstar Cadillac sedan with 160,000 miles on the odometer, and claims that all the original luxury features still work, bragging that his aging land yacht still delivers 26 miles to the gallon. I have no reason to doubt him. His cowboy boots are badly scuffed and his red checked shirt, as well as the Commission’s group portrait, where he sports a plaid jacket and bright yellow tie, makes you think of a 1950s Eisenhower Republican fresh from an Elks Club meeting. So, why is this shrewd, experienced political operator leading the call for a 51st state?

Sean Conway explains that Weld County purchased this existing building as its headquarters and has plenty of room to expand inside in the future. Weld County also paid cash for the building.

Getting your attention

Conway is one of those hyperactive spirits who operates on 220 volts, while the rest of us settle for 110. Asked directly, he admits that secession isn’t likely, but he explains, “We had to do something that would grab Denver’s attention.” If that was his goal, then he has succeeded in spades. The political friction on display has been over-simplified as a collision between urban and rural values. While that’s a piece of it, there is a larger and more significant demand for an equal seat at the “big boys” policy table. Although the Weld County Commission allows citizens to attend its meetings packing firearms, provided they can produce their concealed carry permits, the size of bullet clips isn’t what has many residents riled up.

Platte Valley Fire Protection District’s Fire Chief Barry Schaefer says his station employs 12 career staff and 43 volunteers, who come from far and wide. It depends on its volunteers.

The Weld County Commissioners aren’t settling for a few ephemeral headlines. They are holding public hearings across the county in preparation for placing a question on this November’s ballot asking voter permission to formally launch a statehood campaign. They drew a crowd of 60 in Fort Lupton last week, and another 75 in Longmont on Monday, with meetings also held in Evans and Ault. A single dissenter attended the Longmont hearing, where a litany of complaints was laundered. We have not heard the last of the 51st state initiative. More than 10,000 “like” its Facebook page. Commissioners reported expressions of support from 42 states, two foreign countries and requests to join them from 30 Colorado counties and dissenters in Kansas and Nebraska.

Noble Energy’s Manager of Government Relations Chad Calvert has drawn a representation of a field, and indicates how Noble Energy uses various methods to reduce its footprint. In this case, the one dark point near his hand indicates ground-level well equipment, and the adjacent parallel horizontal lines show how multiple subterranean extensions can feed from that one point.

Testimony ranged from thoughtful to intriguing to borderline lunatic. Governor John Hickenlooper was accused of everything from stealing hunting and fishing license revenues paid to the Department of Wildlife for other purposes and being complicit in steering state and federal moneys to the bankrupt Abound Solar, which was alleged to have been one of his larger campaign contributors. Particularly galling was his reported comment on the Rosen radio show that Colorado’s urban areas subsidize rural counties. Jared Polis, the congressman in CD 2 that includes parts of Weld County, also took a pummeling for his newfound commitment to ‘local control’ once a fracking rig popped up across the road from his Weld County farm. In this crowd ‘local control’ was code for “drill Baby, drill!” Claims that arguments against SB 252’s rural renewable standard were quashed on the floor of the Legislature seemed dubious, although it was pointed out that none of Weld County’s legislators were in attendance.

Inside Noble Energy’s Operations Control Center where they keep track of all the wells.

Once the political heat had risen in the room, testimony began to run towards objections to “…being lied to by politicians in Denver and Washington,” and the loss of American respect around the world because “…we no longer stand up for freedom.” Even the United Nation’s Agenda 21 was raised as a threat to the quality of life in Weld County. Expectations that a statehood referendum would pass with 90 percent support sounded wildly optimistic. It’s doubtful that an endorsement of the Second Coming scheduled for Pike’s Peak could earn 90 percent support. During a straw poll, humor finally seized the room as all but two voted to “throw Denver and Boulder” off the island to form their own state. There were near unanimous expressions of support for the Commissioners’ decision to force the issue, including from Bob Grand, publisher of the Lost Creek Guide.

Weld County PIO Jennifer Finch leaves the meeting at Noble Energy bearing a big check....$73,000,000 made out to the Weld County Treasurer for 2012 ad valorum taxes paid to the county by Noble Energy and subsidiaries.

Conway complains that he traveled frequently to the Capitol during the recent legislative session, visiting with both the Governor and Democratic leaders, to register objections to SB 252, which requires an expanded rural electric renewable standard by 2020, as well as the raft of new oil and gas regulations and restrictions. His impact proved slight. While it is true that rural generators and distributors have resisted conservation mandates for more than 30 years, it’s also true that farmers are exceptionally sensitive to energy costs. As one member of the Governor’s 252 Commission noted last week, “I don’t pick my crops on the basis of how much water I have, but on the basis of how much I can afford to pump.” The 500-foot setback between residences and oil and gas drill pads, which becomes effective next month did not include an exception for the case of center-pivot irrigators who prefer to place these pads in their untilled corners, even if they then wind up closer than 500 feet. In other words, there are real issues here.

Fire Chief Barry Schaefer presides over his beautifully appointed Fire Station based in Kersey, CO. that covers the Platte Valley Fire Protection District, and includes amenities for its staff and a public room for community use.

Following the Arab oil boycott in the 70s, even a majority Republican Legislature began to get antsy about energy conservation. Girts Krumins with Colorado-Ute Electric in Montrose testified that, “We’re not in the conservation business, we’re in the energy business.” Several years later he used his clout to persuade the Legislature that it should exempt rural electrics out from under Public Utilities Commission regulation. Since then, the generation and transmission (G&T) providers to Colorado’s REAs have flouted pressure to include renewable sources in their energy portfolios, even when these generators were their own customers — ranchers and farmers eager to install small wind or biomass plants. Consequently, environmentalists felt amply justified in strong-arming these conservation troglodytes with SB 252. Unfortunately, Colorado ag producers were caught in the crossfire.

Platte Valley Fire Protection District Captain Bryce Lesser’s 3-year old helmet looks antique and emits a dense odor of smoke.

A gusher of resources

Although Weld County has only 300,000 residents, it boasts the third highest assessed property valuation among Colorado’s 65 counties. Within a few years, the oncoming oil and gas rush into the Niobrara formation is expected to push Weld into first place, exceeding even Denver County. Energy companies are throwing off huge wads of cash and Weld County is promptly diverting much of this revenue into non-TABOR restricted investments in public infrastructure and capital facilities. The most surprising of these is a $34 million dollar, four-lane highway that will connect Keenesburg on I-76 with State Highway 14. The current two-lane road is carrying ever-heavier truck traffic and CDOT has no money to expand it.

A view over the fence shows the expansion under construction at Aims Community College, building classrooms for energy courses, paid for by Weld County.

Weld County is also completing a $5.4 million dollar forensics laboratory serving a handful of northeastern counties, which have agreed to split its operating costs. AIMS Community College, which is independent of the state system, plans to open an expanded south campus in the fall where prospective oil field workers can acquire their industry certifications. Upon graduation, these students will move directly into jobs paying $70-80,000 a year to start, with top pay approaching $120,000 after 5 or 6 years on the job. AIMS is the only higher education institution in Colorado that has not raised its tuition over the past few years, and its ag programs are preparing still other students for unfilled jobs on farms and with food processors. Weld’s 4 percent unemployment helps the remainder of the state’s unemployment appear a full percentage lower than it actually is along the Front Range.

The hands of Noble Energy’s Facilities and Maintenance Manager Andy Jamison (top), Government Relations Manager Chad Calvert (right) and Colorado Statesman’s Miller Hudson (left) focus on a page entitled “When Is Hydraulic Fracture Stimulation Necessary?” in Calvert’s NBL booklet.
Photos by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

Weld is the only county in the nation with zero outstanding debt — it has a ‘cash and carry’ philosophy of governance. They impose no sales tax, sit on a $100 million dollar contingency reserve, and will soon be considering their 6th property tax rollback in the last five years. Home rule in a revenue rich environment serves residents well. Oil and gas revenues recently paid for 90 percent of a new $2.4 million dollar firehouse. If given a chance by the courts, the county expects to fund a significant portion of NISP (the Northern Integrated Storage Project), a water management and supply system that includes two storage facilities including a reservoir exclusively dedicated to agricultural water. Conway and his fellow Commissioners believe it is time they were treated as adults by Denver elites. Seventy percent of the state’s K-12 school monies collected by the Colorado Land Board flow from Weld County tracts. Its agricultural economy now approaches $2 billion annually, and ranks Weld as the 8th most productive farming county in the nation.

At the same time as the economy was accelerating across Northeastern Colorado, state coffers were running dry. The condition of Colorado’s state highways is ranked 47th in the nation, with our rural roads now dead last. CDOT rarely spends money east of I-25 and faces a $2 billion dollar backlog of urgent Front Range improvements, not to mention improved mountain access. It appears to Conway as though the purring engines in Colorado’s economy are regularly sending their money to Denver and receiving very little of it back.

Energy and agriculture

Together with tourism, these constitute the three pillars supporting Colorado’s economy. The untapped energy potential in the Wattenberg and Niobrara shale is expected to exceed that in North Dakota’s Bakken formation. It is not uncommon for a hundred new well permits to be pulled each week in Weld County. Noble Energy, alone, operates 6,000 pads. Once drilled, they are automated and connected to centralized “Econodes,” all of which are continually monitored for anomalies from a NORAD style control room. All the larger producers are installing similar monitoring centers. Drill sites are equipped with automatic shutdown protocols, reporting production data via solar powered wireless networks with round-the-clock monitors. Passive pads can be spotted in cornfields, adjoining dirt roads and adjacent to rural residences. The Weld County Health Department is the only local agency in the state offering free domestic water well testing for all residents.

Following hundreds of testing requests, the department has yet to discover oil field contaminants in domestic wells. When I was working as a nuclear trash man several years ago, one engineer observed that, “If you’re going to warn people that I’m poisoning their children, eventually you’ll have to produce a poisoned child.” The same seems to be true for Colorado’s anti-fracking zealots, whose attention has been shifting from alleged water contamination to the dangers of air pollution. This offers the added advantage of being invisible, largely odorless and far more difficult to test for. It also places the industry and its regulators in the unhappy position of having to prove a negative. (Just because we can’t measure your emissions, it doesn’t mean you aren’t emitting.) It’s hard for a layman to judge just how dangerous all this production may be, but there’s little question that the industry is going to extraordinary lengths and expense to guard against a catastrophe. If crops or lives were being routinely damaged, surely we would hear about it.

Agriculture is also booming in Weld County. Leprino cheese is constructing a huge, billion dollar mozzarella plant that it plans to build out in three phases. They are projecting a need for 56,000 additional milk cows in Front Range dairies. ConAgra and other meat processors have shifted from the largely Latino workforce they relied on prior to the Swift raid in 2005 to East Africans from Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia. Since they are predominantly political refugees, entering the country with work permits and a path to citizenship, the INS leaves them alone. Nearly six thousand form an active, involved cultural community in Greeley. Immigration cuts many ways in Weld County, which is currently 30 percent Hispanic, as the farming sector strongly supports expanded visa programs for the field laborers required to harvest crops.

Recently farming has grown so lucrative that shares in water storage co-ops have doubled in value over the past few months. If even a portion of the riparian wells along the Platte River, which were closed a few years ago to meet downstream obligations, is approved for use now that groundwater levels are rising again, even more land will be brought back into production. All this economic activity is just as much a part of Colorado’s character and prosperity as our ski resorts, high-tech start-ups and Front Range lifestyle dynamism. It’s way past time these Coloradans were afforded a permanent chair at the state’s planning table, and, perhaps, urbanites should even step a little away from their comfort zone in order to accommodate rural policy preferences. I’m not greatly worried about the ecological practices of folks who must live each day with the consequences that predictably follow a decision that fouls their own nests.

Air and water

Nonetheless, the “drill baby, drill” enthusiasm among the current crop of Weld County Commissioners is beginning to incubate its own resistance. The Platte Valley watershed downstream of Denver has been an ozone non-attainment area for decades. During the brown cloud era in the 70s and early 80s, metropolitan pollutants could be seen with the naked eye flowing northeast across Adams and Weld Counties. While the visible components in this brew have largely vanished, on a hot day the remaining transient gases still frequently cook up to violate EPA standards. This opening is the wedge that Weld Air and Water, an environmental advocacy group, has seized on to file legal challenges to runaway drilling. At this point this isn’t a blue collar, grassroots uprising so much as it is a reflexive NIMBYism arising amongst the denizens of the spreading residential developments now dotting the county. Once you own your own McMansion, pretty much anywhere in the U. S., BANANA (“build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone”) politics is certain to follow.

While all five Weld County Commissioners are currently Republicans, their ballot box dominance isn’t reflective of an anti-government, TEA Party, ‘shut it down’ political philosophy. These people aren’t afraid to spend money, although they remain frugal. Unlike Adams and Jefferson Counties, which both erected monumental administrative complexes, Weld repurposed an abandoned GMAC call center for $3 million. And, when it became apparent they were facing a growing homelessness problem among children and families following the 2008 economic collapse, they jumped on the phones and swiftly raised $5 million, largely from oil and gas operators, to build the Guadalupe Center privately operated by Catholic Charities. This kind of mutual, wink-wink, back scratching may feel unseemly, but it’s hard to criticize this bunch for ignoring their social issues.

I liked Sean Conway when he was an eager beaver Young Republican at the Capitol. I liked him when he took a Democratic lawyer for his bride. I liked him when he rustled up a half-million dollar earmark to help preserve the historic Elitch Theater in Northwest Denver. I still like him as a pro-growth Weld County Commissioner.

Temporarily, congressional earmarks may be a piece of history, but Sean has proven adept at calling in favors and securing federal grants for the expensive laboratory equipment at the spanking new crime lab opening next month. And, he has successfully wrung dollars from Washington for Aims Community College programs. He’s definitely not afraid to spread this money around. Yet he and his fellow commissioners may be skating on thin political ice. As a pond hockey player in my youth I learned the ice will creak and groan and even crack as long as you’re moving over it. It’s only when you stop abruptly that you find
yourself thrashing about in soggy underwear.

Platteville is constructing an “energy park” for the influx of petroleum field services companies. Weld County’s 31 municipalities are sprucing themselves up using their surfeit of oil and gas revenues — emergency services, social services and municipal facilities are first rate. Fracking has made oil and gas production more efficient, more profitable and less concerned about costs. They may whine about their taxes and threaten to drill someplace else, but everyone recognizes this for the charade it is. They will always drill where the oil is, and in Colorado, that’s the Wattenberg and Niobrara shales. It’s likely to be a cold day in hell before Weld County voters cry, “Enough!” Meanwhile, there remains that little matter of respect down the road in Denver.


See the Aug. 2 print edition for full photo coverage.