John Colson: Energy office targeted by oil and gas backers

John Colson
Hit & Run

Colorado’s Energy Office is in trouble.

State Senate Republicans, clearly energized by President Donald Trump’s war on renewable energy, public lands and other policy debacles, are once again hoping to water down the CEO’s emphasis on solar power, energy conservation and other alternative-energy policy initiatives adopted by the agency (a similar bill failed last year).

Just as during last year’s debate, the sponsors of Senate Bill 3 — which is advancing through the state legislative channels as we speak — want the CEO to spend more of its promotional budget on oil and gas exploration, nuclear power and other more “traditional” (read: “profitable”) ways of meeting our nation’s energy needs.

At the same time, it appears that Republicans are working behind the scenes to cut funding for the CEO at a time when the agency already is strapped for cash.

The net result of these two efforts, if they succeed, would be essentially to turn the state agency into just another bunch of bureaucrats doing everything they can to support wealthy corporate interests at the expense of the world’s environment (I increasingly believe the oil and gas industry contributes heavily to global warming) and Colorado’s growing renewable-energy economic sector.

That is because, as with all state agencies, there still is only so much money that this agency can count on to do its job, and adding things to its to-do list will mean less money for each of its appointed tasks.

Think of the agency’s funding supply as a pie that for decades has been divided among mainly renewable-energy projects, although it also has gotten involved in promoting oil and gas ventures in some circumstances. If instead of concentrating mainly on renewables the CEO must add to its promotional burden the already-fat oil and gas industry, it will necessarily mean lower funding availability for renewables. Presumably, the new arrangement would mean some sort of resource-sharing agreements, and the petroleum-based industries have not exactly been known for openness to sharing the energy market with renewables.

I think this is remarkably shortsighted on the part of the Republicans (and the Democrats who have crossed the aisle on this issue), and that one immediate outcome of these changes will be that Colorado is no longer viewed as a leading state in the area of renewable energy. Our state might thereby lose out in attracting new, high-tech, renewable-energy companies and projects.

Instead, we will be added to the list of states that bend over backward to do the bidding of the petroleum sector, regardless of the harm that will do to the environment and to the home-energy budgets of countless Coloradans.

Created in 1977 by then-Gov. Dick Lamm, the CEO has become a beacon of progressive energy policies across the country, as it worked to promote a host of renewable-energy technologies among the state’s business and residential communities.

You remember Lamm, I’m sure — he got the nickname of Governor Gloom back in the mid-1970s, when he was famously misquoted as saying that senior citizens in poor health had a “duty to die” rather than burden their children with costly efforts to extend their lives.

At that time, of course, Colorado was just about to dive into one of its various energy boondoggles, the ill-fated oil shale boom that flared up in the late 1970s and early 1980s. That boom brought huge corporate investments to Mesa, Garfield and Rio Blanco counties for a few years, as companies tried to figure out how to squeeze an oil-like substance from deep rock layers and refine it into fuel.

But in 1982, the boom went bust, the companies pulled out, and the entire state’s economy was plunged into a serious recession that lasted longer than the boom had.

Go ahead, Google it and read all about it if you don’t believe me.

More recently, of course, we’ve had another boom, this one involving the exploitation of shale gas reserves buried a mile or 2 under western Colorado, eastern Utah and southern Wyoming, which is in much the same geographical area as the oil shale boom was.

Among the problems arising from the shale-gas boom has been the issue of escaping fumes and liquids from the drilling, pumping and storage facilities.

Many area residents and some scientists believe these escaping hydrocarbons have created a health hazard to those living near the facilities, though the industry has done all it could over the past couple of decades to discredit those claims and prevent the kind of detailed environmental analysis that might prove the matter one way or the other.

Regardless of one’s feelings about the industry and its health effects, though, there is one thing that is undeniable and inescapable — the oil and gas industry, like all mineral extractive industries, has the upper hand in Colorado, and always has.

The state’s constitution largely was written by mining interests, its legislature has been dominated by mining interests through much of the state’s history, and state “regulators” at the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission have been heavily criticized as more of an enabling agency for the industry than a true watchdog for citizens’ health and welfare.

So one has to question why oil and gas, or coal, or any of the traditional extractive industries need additional help from the state, where there is no question at all of the need for such help from upstart renewable-energy companies.

One also has to wonder at our state’s continued gullibility, if legislators truly believe that oil and gas interests, not to mention nuclear power advocates, will ever agree to equitably share that aforementioned funding pie with solar, wind power and other alternative energy sources.

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