Aspen, mayor under fire in energy debate | AspenTimes.com

Aspen, mayor under fire in energy debate

ASPEN ” Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland spoke up for the town’s billionaires Wednesday when attacked by an organization promoting natural gas production in western Colorado.

Ireland tends to think of himself as the champion of the working class, but he defended all Aspenites on Wednesday in a spat with an organization called Americans for American Energy (AAE).

The Golden, Colo. office of AAE issued a statement calling Ireland’s opposition to natural gas drilling on the public lands near Rifle called the Roan Plateau hypocritical, given the extravagant lifestyles of Aspen’s upper crust.

“Billionaires in Aspen, Colorado and liberal politicians like Aspen’s Mayor Mick Ireland are attacking natural gas development while that community’s growing number of mountain-top mansions ‘burn more natural gas in a day than most Coloradoans use in a week,'” said AAE spokesman Greg Schnacke.

Ireland dismissed the statement as an effort to distract focus from the real issue ” that a large and diverse group of residents in western Colorado don’t want to sacrifice certain public lands for energy production.

“It just shows why you can’t trust these guys. He’s masking the real agenda,” Ireland said.

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Americans for American Energy is a nonprofit organization, but Ireland labeled them a “hired gun” for the energy development corporations.

Wednesday’s sparring was actually round two in a fight between AAE and elected officials from the region. The fight demonstrates how highly charged the debate has become over energy production in gas-rich Garfield County.

Nine mayors of mountain towns from Aspen to Parachute sent a letter to AAE Friday expressing “dismay” over misrepresentations the organization allegedly made to try to open the Roan Plateau for “irresponsible energy development.”

The mayors recently have been speaking on major issues with a collective voice in the hope that it will give them regional clout. They were especially dismayed that AAE said anyone opposing domestic energy production was “abetting terrorism.”

Regarding the Roan Plateau, the mayors said the federal government must take a “balanced approach,” which takes the long-term economic benefits of hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation on the Roan Plateau into account.

AAE issued an angry reply last weekend to the mayors’ letter, stressing that efforts to prevent drilling in America will increase dependency on foreign sources. AAE continued on the offensive Wednesday, targeting Ireland and Aspen.

“It’s ironic to see liberal politicians like the mayor of Aspen attack the production of clean-burning natural gas in Colorado at the same time his community is building super-sized ‘trophy homes’ that will increase Aspen’s need for more of this very resource,” Schnacke said. “The mayor finds it convenient to attack natural gas from the U.S. Naval Oil Shale Reserve while at the same time singing the hallelujah chorus for more renewable energy resources like wind, solar and biofuels.”

When asked if Aspen was singled out because of its liberal, wealthy image, Schnacke replied, “That’s a fair assessment.” The irony of the Aspen mayor complaining about natural gas production at a time when second-home owners are rolling into town and “cranking up the castles to 72 degrees” was too rich to ignore, Schnacke said.

He declined to comment when asked why his organization didn’t single out another town that was represented in the mayor’s letter, such as Silt.

Schnacke acknowledged that his frustration was with all the mayors of the mountain towns. He thinks they shot from the hip, without understanding larger issues of energy demand and production. Aspen is a “great example” of the larger problem of people not wanting energy production in their backyards while helping create the demand for that energy, he said.

When the mayors oppose drilling on the Roan Plateau, they influence the national debate, Schnacke said. So when Ireland and the other mayors signed their names to the letter, they had to be prepared to engage in debate. “The rhetoric is one thing, the facts are another,” Schnacke said.

Ireland, who faced two recall attempts as a Pitkin County commissioner prior to winning election as Aspen mayor, is used to political criticism.

“He wanted me to be the target,” said Ireland. Schnacke and the oil industry don’t want to concede that all mayors of the region, representing all political persuasions, felt the same way.

Ireland equated Schnacke’s tactics with McCarthyism ” if you disagree with him, he will vilify you.

The mayor said he saw no irony in Aspen fighting natural gas drilling, given the town’s environmental record.

He noted Aspen gets 75 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, and that voters just approved building a hydro-electric plan on Castle Creek to augment its sources. Pitkin County limits the size of houses, the city and county have tough energy efficiency standards, and the Community Office for Renewable Resources has nationally-renowned programs designed to improve efficiency in the region.

“I stand up for what Aspen’s done,” he said.

As for himself personally, Ireland said he cannot be lumped in with the billionaires. He lives in a compact affordable housing unit and said he has driven to work twice all year. He shrugged off Schnacke’s suggestion that he is a hypocrite.

“It’s laughable is what it is,” Ireland said.

scondon@aspentimes.com