Western Wire

Gov. Jared Polis’ vision for Colorado’s energy future has drawn mixed reviews from key voices across the state, as legislators, county, and business officials assess the ramifications of shifting from an “all-of-the-above” strategy to 100 percent renewables over the next two decades

The loss of jobs and talent, the uncertainty of retraining efforts, and the possibility of large population shifts in rural and urban communities as workers relocate were the top concerns according to those who spoke to Western Wire.

“It is true that coal production and the coal-fired power plants in NW Colorado represent a significant portion of Moffat County’s tax base; losing those jobs would pose very difficult economic distress on the county,” Bonnie Petersen, Executive Director of Associated Government of Northwest Colorado (AGNC), said. “Energy production is a very significant economic driver in Northwest Colorado across most of the AGNC counties.”

AGNC represents Mesa, Garfield, Rio Blanco, Moffat, Grand and Routt counties and their municipalities, along with the cities of Montrose and Delta.

Polis promised a “fair” shake to the state’s energy workers in coal, oil and gas, as he pushed policies that encouraged renewable energy development—including the 100 percent renewable energy goal by 2040—at the expense of traditional natural resources.

“You know, make no mistake, with price declines and technological advances, the move toward renewable energy is already taking place, and it will only accelerate, but as we embrace the renewable energy future, we also need to do right by the men and women in today’s energy workforce- some of the hardest working people in Colorado,” Polis said. “And, for the men and women who work in the coal and oil and gas industries, we will make sure that this future works for you.”

Parts of Colorado have begun to glimpse that future.

Shutting down coal mining and coal-powered electric generation, as seen in Moffat County, has led to a decline in employment, Petersen said.

Petersen noted that Moffat County was one of the counties designated as distressed by the Economic Development Administration at the Department of Commerce last year. “NW Colorado counties have not recovered from the 2008 recession and Moffat County seems to be declining as jobs are not replaced in preparation for the scheduled close of Unit 1 of the Craig Station power plant in 2025,” she said.

Policies intended to promote renewable energy—and the jobs that accompany them—have failed in northwest Colorado, Petersen said.

“We have seen bills passed by the state legislature before pushing the renewable energy standards (RES) higher; proponents of these bills say that they will create jobs in the areas impacted but we have yet to see one job created as a result of the increased RES,” she said. “We are seeing a loss of jobs.”

The promise of a “just transition” from current, well-paid jobs in natural resource development has not materialized, Petersen continued.

“We agree that the energy workforce of today are some of the hardest working people in Colorado and if government is going to force the loss of their jobs and the economic sustainability of their communities then there should be opportunities available to help with a transition – we haven’t seen that in rural Colorado,” Petersen said.

Rural communities such as those in Moffat County don’t have reliable, well-paid job alternatives waiting for them, and what service jobs there are pay only a fraction of what the workers receive as energy workers, according to Petersen.

“[T]hat is not helpful for the workers, their families, the communities, the school districts or the other businesses in the area,” she said.

Polis’ “[p]olicy proposals that target 100% renewable energy definitely put energy workers and energy producing communities at risk in NW Colorado,” Petersen concluded. Any transition will take additional resources, she said, inviting Polis to northwest Colorado. “We would like the Governor to come to the table in NW Colorado and bring his constructive ideas so we can work together to identify real solutions for these workers and communities if we are going to pursue such policies as a state.”

Ray Beck, Chairman of AGNC and a Moffat County Commissioner and former Mayor of Craig, Colo. agreed, inviting the governor to visit his county and take a tour of Craig Generating Station.

“We support all-of-the-above,” Beck said. “Our ten top taxpayers in the county are energy-based, Tri-State being our number one taxpayer.”

Tri-Sate Generation and Transmission operates in parts of rural Colorado and three other states.

“This community has for years relied on our energy sector, and so when we think about transitioning over to renewables by 2040, that is very concerning for Moffat County,” said Beck.

Beck said that the attempts to economically diversify are underway, but “it’s easier said than done.”

“My message to the governor is that, with all due respect… his call for building and fostering relationships, whether it be him coming to our counties or us going over to the state capitol to meet with him, I would like to take him up on that offer,” Beck said, inviting Polis to share his ideas on transitioning from coal-based economies.

Beck also worried about impacts to local tax revenues from energy producers and economic dislocation as residents abandon counties like his for better economic opportunities elsewhere.

“Property tax is our largest revenue source,” Beck said. “This is really concerning for us.” Budgets would be immediately impacted, he added.

Gary Arnold, business manager for Denver Pipefitters Local 208 and a vocal opponent of last year’s Proposition 112 2,500-foot setback measure told Western Wire he was cautiously optimistic but still concerned about oil and gas workers having a seat at the table in policy discussions.

“I believe that most Coloradan’s understand the challenges climate change will present to our state, but those same Coloradan’s understand that we can’t just abandon an entire industry supporting so many middle-class workers,” Arnold said.

He added that he was encouraged by Polis’ acknowledgement during the Governor’s State of the State address and the commitment that “workers in the current Coal/Oil/Gas industries will be at the table when developing future energy policy.” He said this was an improvement on the process unlike Proposition 112, which sought to exclude workers and businesses in the industry.

Arnold said that any policy option must ensure adequate resources for worker transitioning to other energy development.

“The goal now must shift to embracing the best technology available now and in the future (including carbon capture, geothermal, and other clean energy processes), and providing worker transition programs that ensure residents employed in the oil/gas/coal industry continue to be part of Colorado’s strong middle class,” Arnold said.

Besides money, Arnold continued, adequate time to make the policy shift should be a “priority” for legislators. “An energy policy embracing all resources available, is well planned, and provides a long enough timeline for proper implementation should be our priority,” he said.

Arnold served on Polis’ transition team, working to identify and hire candidates for the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment and the Office of Economic Development and International Trade.

Sen. John Cooke, Western Wire

State Sen. John Cooke, Assistant Minority Leader for Senate Republicans, told Western Wire that Polis’ speech was akin to “no fossil fuel worker left behind.”

“It’s not good. When people say, ‘we want to retrain,’ that means relocate,” Cooke said. Relocation of high-paying jobs to neighboring states, Cooke said, as well-paid workers flee for better economic opportunity, would drain places like Weld County, where more than 90 percent of the state’s oil production and approximately 40 percent of natural gas production occurs. He cited states like Oklahoma and especially Texas and New Mexico, where oil production in the Permian Basin was booming.

“Why would these high-paying jobs for people working in the oil and gas industry take huge cuts to be retrained?” Cooke asked.

Taking a huge pay cut doesn’t make sense in either the short term or long term, he added. “And what about the communities that depend on those workers? They’re going to become dust bowls.”

Local governments stand to lose revenues from falling a falling tax base as workers leave, housing prices plummet, and property and severance taxes directly and indirectly related to oil and gas production disappear—something that deeply troubles Cooke, who represents portions of Weld County.

“We’re going to lose a lot of tax base, people are going to move out, school districts will be hit hard and lose financing, along with the cities and counties,” Cooke said. “It will be devastating to the economy of Colorado.”

Cooke said Republicans in the General Assembly are taking a “wait-and-see” approach to legislation this session, but hopes to defeat any more extreme bill proposals, like moratoria on all oil and gas operations, or any push for a setback measure similar to the one defeated in November by ten points.

Democrats hold a 19-16 seat majority in the State Senate. Cooke hopes that at the very least, Senate Republicans can mitigate adverse impacts from the more aggressive bills he expected Democrats to introduce.