Energy issues could trip up Western Slope Dems in 2010

Rep. Kathleen Curry, D-Gunnison. (Photo/repcurry.com)

Rep. Kathleen Curry, D-Gunnison. (Photo/repcurry.com)

A mineral royalty rights meeting that turned ugly in Grand Junction earlier this month is just a small taste of what’s coming for local and state Democrats running for re-election in 2010 on Colorado’s Western Slope, according to one lawmaker.

“This was a warning shot for me,” said state Rep. Kathleen Curry, a Democrat from Gunnison. “This is an indication of what we’ll be up against on the Western Slope, at least in the areas where the boom-and- bust cycle of drilling is in the bust phase.”

Curry said she was shouted down at times during what she thought was a royalty owner’s meeting to discuss legislation to protect their rights. Instead, the meeting turned into a rather heated debate about the more environmentally stringent Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission drilling regulations passed by the Democratic-controlled Legislature this year.

“That’s telling me that as part of the 2010 election cycle there will be a lot of discussion about that, and that’s fine,” Curry said. “So in a way it was good, because now I know. I do feel like [the Legislature] did the right thing this year, and I do have responses to the questions and reasons for the positions that I took.”

Some in the oil and gas industry are in part blaming the new rules for a massive slowdown in drilling across the Western Slope. They’ve promised to frame the 2010 election in terms of jobs and economic opportunity lost.

Tom Rutledge, a senior landman for Denver-based Laramie Energy, was Curry’s main detractor at the royalty owner’s meeting, although he was not representing his company. He said the rules have kept him from developing his rights on land he owns in North Park, but feels there’s no open forum for criticizing the new rules.

“So it’s a very politically charged issue,” Rutledge said last week by phone. “The industry’s been discredited as a bunch of greedy people that don’t tell the truth. There is retribution out there, and everyone is living in a lot of fear right now because if you work for a company, your company will be punished by the people in charge. We don’t think there’s an open public forum anymore.”

Curry said she welcomes tough questions on the new regulations and will be better prepared on the subject at future meetings, no matter the topic, but she added it would be a mistake for the oil and gas industry to use tactics seen in the 2008 Garfield County election, when money from 527 groups fueled a questionable campaign aimed at Democrats.

A 527 group, named for a section of the federal tax code, is a tax-exempt political organization formed to influence the campaigns of elected officials and is not bound by traditional fund-raising limits that govern other political groups. The Aurora-based Colorado League of Taxpayers headed by Republican operative Scott Shires was fined more than $7,000 for improper electioneering in the Garfield County commissioner’s race in 2008.

In Curry’s case, she sponsored a bill that kept between 4,000 and 5,000 coal-bed methane bills online despite a Supreme Court ruling that would have shut them down. Her district includes New Castle and Silt, both in gas-rich Garfield County.

“For them to do a full-scale attack on me doesn’t help them because I will win, and my voters are not stupid, and they will see through the glossy flyers and they will see through the lies and they will make their decisions based on my record and my integrity,” Curry said.

“[The oil and gas industry] can put all the money they want into 527s and I’m going to win anyway, and then next time around when I come in and they need help on something, they will not have set themselves up for that.”

Meanwhile, industry officials say they are starting to see olive branches being offered by Democrats, including Gov. Bill Ritter himself, who continues do a delicate balancing act between pushing hard for his “New Energy Economy” — and all the new jobs it’s brought to the state — and propping up the faltering oil and gas sector.

Susan Alvillar, community affairs representative for Williams, a major Western Slope natural gas producer, said in an interview last month that Ritter sent a letter to Congress urging lawmakers to keep tax credits in place for certain drilling supplies.

“I thought that was really heartening, to say the least, that he would take that position,” Alvillar said. “People are recognizing that the new energy spirit in western Colorado is going to have to include a bridge fuel, which we see as natural gas, and also because we certainly support renewables, but the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine all the time.”

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About the Author

David O. Williams

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail
and Real Aspen.

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