Late last year, the U.S. government updated its state-level energy rankings. Colorado is the fifth largest producer of oil in the country, just ahead of Alaska and California, and sixth in natural gas.
This may be news to some, but Colorado has always been a major energy-producing state. The Denver-Julesburg Basin and Southern Colorado’s Raton Basin, for example, have produced oil and gas for decades. Equally important, Colorado also leads the nation in protecting the environment and public health.
Sweeping reforms started by Gov. Bill Ritter and continued by Gov. John Hickenlooper — both Democrats — dramatically tightened oil and regulations across the board, from the location of wells, to air quality controls, to local involvement in the permitting process, and more.
Today Colorado has “the most stringent set of state regulations governing oil and gas extraction,” Ritter said last year before co-chairing the transition team for Democratic Gov. Jared Polis.
How was this possible?
Throughout these reforms — some 15 major rulemakings in less than a decade — Colorado’s oil and gas sector continued as a cornerstone of the state economy. It supported the livelihoods of tens of thousands of working families while generating billions of dollars in tax revenues for state, local and school-district budgets.
The changes required by lawmakers and state regulators were demanding, yes, but they weren’t driven by political ideology. Instead, during my time in the legislature, I saw policymakers bringing stakeholders to the table to work through their differences and find areas of common ground.
As a result, the reforms that ultimately passed were based on the facts and grounded in the reality that producing oil and natural gas locally is consistent with other priorities, including climate change and renewable energy.
Because energy is not a zero-sum game.
Colorado’s natural gas, for example, has helped the U.S. lead the world in cutting greenhouse gas emissions and power plants fueled with natural gas have supported the rapid rise of wind and solar. Gas turbines are an ideal backup source for renewables when the weather suddenly changes, making wind and solar more reliable and easier to integrate on the power grid.
Unfortunately, Colorado’s leadership also makes us a target. National groups with absolute, all-or-nothing views on energy have spent years campaigning for direct and indirect bans on oil and gas. The mere existence of these energy sources in Colorado offends their politics.
“I moved to Colorado a few years ago with the expectation that I was going to be moving to this pristine environment, with crystal-blue air and this emphasis on outdoor recreation and health and wellness, and I arrived and realized there are 50,000 active wells,” said Anne Lee Foster with Colorado Rising, which partnered with national groups Food & Water Watch and 350.org to push anti-oil and gas Proposition 112 last year.
Colorado Rising’s executive director Joe Salazar even claimed oil and gas is an “immoral industry” that “has no business here.”
To be sure, Gov. Polis and legislative leaders say new regulations are planned. But I’m optimistic the facts will prevail over ideology, as they have before.
Cutting emissions and boosting renewables are priorities for the governor and legislative leaders, but experience shows those goals are not in conflict with continued oil and natural gas production in Colorado.
Until we have 100 percent electric vehicles, we still need oil-based fuels for cars and trucks, and for the power plants that generate our electricity, Ritter says natural gas will be needed “[f]or the foreseeable future.”
Yes, our economy is making an energy transition. But until it’s complete, locally producing the energy we use today only makes sense. The alternative is relying on other states and other countries with lower standards to produce our energy for us, and that won’t help the planet at all.
Former state Sen. Cheri Jahn represented Jefferson County in the Colorado legislature for more than 15 years, first as a Democrat and later as an Unaffiliated lawmaker. She serves on the board of Vital for Colorado, a coalition of state business leaders focused on energy policy.
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