Most experts agree, the factors shaping the 2010 election on Colorado’s Western Slope — and to a lesser degree the rest of the state — boil down to a version of that old James Carville chestnut: “It’s the energy economy, stupid.”
Environmental organizations have already recognized the political shift away from green causes and toward almost any industry offering an end to the unrelenting recession. Last legislative session, conservationists helped craft most bills with jobs creation in mind.
Now many observers expect the oil and gas industry and its conservative supporters to politically counterpunch by attacking Gov. Bill Ritter’s “New Energy Economy” as a jobs-killer forced down the electorate’s throats by an out-of-touch, Democratic-controlled legislature.
“It starts with Gov. Ritter and his new energy program. Is it going to make it or not? The changes that he’s taken risks on — did he take the right risks or not?” said John Martin, a Republican commissioner in gas-rich Garfield County. “It also deals with the positions of the local folks, from the mayors to the county commissioners. It’s a very huge issue, along with the economy.”
Martin said the recession, plummeting commodity prices and over-regulation of the industry by the state are all to blame for what could be up to an 80-percent decline in natural-gas drilling in his area compared to last summer. And he cites nearly triple the number of home foreclosures in the first quarter of this year compared to last year.
Susan Alvillar, community affairs representative for Williams, said her company alone had 25 drilling rigs in operation on the Western Slope a year ago. Now they’re down to eight, and all the companies collectively only have 23 in operation this spring.
Although Williams has not yet laid off any of its 250 full-time employees, Alvillar said their contract workforce of approximately 3,000 has been cut, and as anecdotal evidence of the downturn, she said Parachute High School has lost about 70 students since last October.
“People always said, ‘Yeah, well, natural gas creates jobs,’ but I think now that the jobs are going away it’s really heightened the reality of just how many people relied on the industry to make a good living on the Western Slope,” Alvillar said.
Rifle Mayor Keith Lambert, a Democrat who has embraced the renewable energy sector as a means of offsetting the boom-bust cycle of the fossil-fuel industry, said the current downturn in no way compares to 1982, when 2,000 full-time jobs in oil shale production were lost virtually overnight. But he recognizes voters may blame the governor for the current slowdown, even though natural-gas production is suffering nationwide.
“If jobs are made in the ‘New Energy Economy’ and people realize there’s a future in all of this, then Ritter is going to be back in there in a heartbeat, and if they don’t believe that, and if they have a hard time grasping that we’re changing as a society, then he’s going to struggle,” Lambert said.
The Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States (IPAMS) claims the natural gas and oil industry in Colorado is directly and indirectly responsible for 71,000 jobs that pay 61 percent above the state average.
By contrast, a 2007 study on green jobs produced by the American Solar Energy Society claims the renewable energy and energy efficiency sector is responsible for 91,000 jobs in Colorado, generating 70 percent more jobs than the oil and gas sector and more than 2.5 jobs per dollar of revenue than oil and gas. Overall, though, that study also pointed out that the oil and gas sector does still generate more total revenue.
But beyond a straight-up comparison of the number of jobs and amount of revenue generated by renewable energy versus oil and gas, environmentalists argue other important economic sectors need to be considered in the political debate, especially when considering the more stringent state drilling regulation implemented in April.
Matthew Garrington, field director for Denver-based Environment Colorado, said preserving and enhancing the state’s $10 billion outdoor recreation industry is just as significant for some Colorado voters.
“That’s why we need to make sure we have a healthier energy industry, because we need to protect other parts of our economy and we need to protect the environmental values of living in the West, because we can’t simply let one industry run roughshod over other important parts of Colorado,” Garrington said.
Ritter will be challenged by Republicans with long track records of supporting the oil and gas industry, especially on the state’s Western Slope. Former Congressman Scott McInnis, an energy consultant and attorney, this week quietly entered the 2010 governor’s race.
A spokesman for the Governor’s Energy Office chose a position of neutrality in the jobs debate.
“Gov. Ritter believes both the oil and gas industry, and the jobs produced through green industry ventures, are critical to Colorado and is pleased to see both sectors providing so many good jobs in the state,” said GEO media relations manager Todd Hartman.