Coal, gas clash has House race smoldering on Western Slope

The political ramifications of Gov. Bill Ritter’s “New Energy Economy” are likely to energize at least one state House race on the Western Slope, where coal mining and natural gas production are now at odds over the governor’s Clean Air Clean Jobs Act.

Coal is king for some in House District 61.
In the south, sprawling House District 61 includes heavy coal mining along the North Fork of the Gunnison River, and in the north the district includes the eastern reaches of Garfield County’s mega gas patch.

The two forms of conventional energy were set off against each other last legislative session during intense negotiations with Xcel Energy – the state’s largest electric power utility – over Clean Air Clean Jobs, which ultimately will replace 900 megawatts of coal-fired generation with cleaner-burning natural gas and other forms of energy.

“I can tell you now that coal and gas are not on very good terms as far as sitting in the same room and working together,” said independent state Rep. Kathleen Curry, I-Gunnison. “This caused a huge split in the conventional energy industry.”

Curry voted against the bill, which had the backing of the natural gas industry and was lauded by environmentalists for creating a larger local market for Colorado-produced gas, which burns 50 percent cleaner than coal.

“But I have a thousand people in my district who work in the coal industry and those are good jobs and my job is to represent those people, and on the gas side they would have continued producing anyway,” Curry told the Colorado Independent.

Curry switched to independent before the last legislative session in part because of the contentious process that led to more environmentally stringent natural gas drilling regulations in the spring of 2009. Opposed bitterly by most Republicans and many in the oil and gas industry, the regulations continue to be a 2010 campaign issue.

A three-term state representative, Curry is now running as a write-in candidate in HD 61, where she was known as a fiscal conservative Democrat able to build consensus across the aisle. She unsuccessfully tried to litigate her way onto the ballot, and has now filed another suit to boost her funding chances as an independent write-in. She recently said her interests parallel those of third-party gubernatorial candidate Tom Tancredo.

In HD 61, with liberal Aspen in the north and more conservative Gunnison in the south, some political observers say she’ll split the Democratic vote with educational publisher Roger Wilson of rural Garfield County, who’s running for the Democrats, and hand the victory to Republican Crested Butte attorney Luke Korkowski. But on energy issues such as the Clean Air Clean Jobs Act, Curry may actually have more in common with Korkowski.

“I’m not convinced that law was written very well, that it will achieve its stated end and that it was economically viable for the coal industry in my district,” Korkowski said of Clean Air Clean Jobs, which is intended to get Colorado out ahead of looming EPA regulation of carbon dioxide emissions. “I don’t think it was a well-crafted law.”

Curry concurs with her Republican opponent that it’s not the role of government to choose one industry over another in a battle for market share.

“What we could have done was study what the impact was to the coal industry if we go this route and then commit to help them transition and deal with the impacts instead of just saying, ‘We’re going to cut the demand for your product and you’re on your own,” Curry said.

Wilson, however, said “the state’s [environmental legacy] is the engine that keeps the Colorado economy going more continuously than the 1800s style of mineral development, which means mining and then lately oil and gas. Those will come in booms and busts and they represent short-term gains.”

Wilson, despite sharing the same party affiliation as Curry up until late last year, represents a more clear distinction for voters on energy issues than Curry and Korkowski.

“I suspect I would be voting more favorably toward the cleaner initiatives than perhaps Kathleen has,” Wilson said. “I expect [coal] to be good citizens and expect that coal will always have a role, although hopefully lesser so over the decades to come because certainly we want less carbon generated.”

As for the amended oil and gas drilling regulations, Korkowski tows the party line touted by GOP gubernatorial candidate Dan Maes, who says the regs should be gutted and anyone on the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation with an environmental bent should be handed a pink slip.

“Clearly the regs need to be revisited and also just as clearly it is very difficult to get out a message on this, because people seem to assume that regulations work – that is, the presence of regulations means that we will have a cleaner environment,” Korkowski said. “I would argue that is not always necessarily the case.”

Wilson said, “I will review if there are bureaucratic issues in how those regulations can be reviewed and implemented. But the fact is the oil and gas industry, what they need is a stable environment so they can have a work plan. They don’t need jumps up and down in terms of adding in regulations, removing regulations, they just need to know what to expect.”

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