Penry joins clean-energy effort, touts increase in gas industry jobs

State Sen. Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, the former quarterback and golden boy of the state GOP, has his name splashed all over a piece of clean-energy legislation that has the backing of his political nemesis, Gov. Bill Ritter, and a slew of conservation groups, including Environment Colorado, Colorado Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club.

Josh Penry
Josh Penry

But it’s also worth noting Penry, a frequent critic of Ritter’s “New Energy Economy,” was not quoted in a release Tuesday from the governor’s office touting the Colorado Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act, which will require Xcel Energy to mothball or retrofit several of its coal-fired power plants on the Front Range so they use cleaner-burning fuel.

Several natural gas industry representatives were quoted in the release, including the head of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA), because most of the retrofitting would involve conversion to natural gas, which burns about 50 percent cleaner than coal but can be more expensive and sees greater price fluctuations. But Colorado is much more of a gas state than a coal state, and Penry’s Western Slope is gas central.

Co-sponsor Penry did, however, talk about the bill with the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, telling veteran political reporter Charles Ashby it’s a “game-changer,” not only for natural gas production on the Western Slope, but for air quality on the Front Range.

Still, the former gubernatorial candidate stopped short of lauding the bill’s potential benefits in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and getting the state out ahead of looming federal climate change legislation or U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations limiting those emissions under the Clean Air Act.

“They’re going to convert about 900 megawatts of coal-fired power production in aging plants in the Denver area to natural gas,” Penry told Ashby. “It is a tough issue in part being driven by major haze issues, but for natural gas and for the industry and all the jobs, it increases natural gas production in the state by about 15 percent, so it’s a big deal.”

Penry also told the Sentinel he was able to make sure the bill will “focus more on jobs than on carbon reduction, saying that should be its real focus.”

COGA President Tisha Conoly Schuller clearly got the memo, keeping her quote in the Ritter release focused on jobs: “The natural gas industry is poised and ready to contribute to Colorado’s clean energy mix with abundant, local natural gas resources. This bill provides the opportunity for Colorado to use a natural gas infrastructure that is in place and operating below capacity to create jobs and increase state and local tax revenues.”

COGA is suing to overturn Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission drilling regulations passed by the legislature last spring and backed by the Ritter administration that put more emphasis on air and water quality, public health and wildlife habitat. Penry has been a frequent and strident critic of those new regs, calling them a job-killer on the Western Slope, despite the fact that any job-killing has been the work of the recession and its impact on gas prices.

“Those protections against drilling are just vital, just critical, and that’s one reason we as a conservation community were so excited to support them and worked so hard for their passage, because we just have to make sure natural gas drilling is done right and that there are just some places it’s not appropriate to drill, period,” Pete Maysmith, executive director of Colorado Conservation Voters, told the Colorado Independent.

Penry, a former congressional staffer for GOP gubernatorial frontrunner Scott McInnis, backed a political nonprofit group called the Western Skies Coalition in an effort to win back lost GOP seats by spinning Republican state Senate candidates to seem more green.

“Any time you get an odd bedfellows coalition of interests together like this people are going to have different interests and different motivations and that’s often what can lead to exciting and diverse coalitions and really important policy,” Maysmith said.

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