A couple of questions someone could ask Gov. John Hickenlooper this week: how much do you love your energy office and do you want to keep it?
It’s not a rhetorical question. The Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee on Wednesday took its first look at a Republican-backed bill that rewrites state energy policy, using the impending demise of the Colorado Energy Office as a way of getting enough Democratic support to push the bill through. The measure passed on a 6-5 party line vote.
The energy office, which has focused largely on green and renewable energy during its history, was the brainchild of then-Gov. Bill Ritter. The office’s authority to operate expires on July 1, so with just five days until the end of the 2017 legislative session, lawmakers are now looking at a bill that would extend the office for another four years.
Republican Sen. Ray Scott of Grand Junction rolled out the omnibus energy bill last week that would rewrite significant portions of Colorado’s energy policy, intending to boost support for hydroelectric and nuclear energy, an avenue the state hasn’t pursued since 1989, when the Fort St. Vrain power plant near Platteville, was shuttered. The plant, about 40 miles north of Denver, was later converted to natural gas.
The bill, which is 57 pages, is titled “Concerning Energy-Related Statutes,” a title so broad almost anything related to energy could be included. And with its rollout just two weeks before the end of the 2017 session, some Democrats are saying that there isn’t enough time left to review a measure that would so substantially change state energy policy.
The bill repeals a number of state programs on renewable energy: two programs that fund renewables for schools, a “green” building incentive program, repealing the office’s authority to maintain a list of solar panel installers, and ending a requirement that the office study alternative fuel truck emissions. The measure also directs the energy office to promote nuclear and hydroelectric power as cleaner energy sources.
Among the more contentious parts of the bill: allowing investor-owned public utilities, such as Xcel and Black Hills, to acquire natural gas reserves to meet long-term supplies. With natural gas prices at low levels, Republicans said buying up additional reserves might lower costs to consumers. Democrats, however, said the measure needed additional protections for consumers.
Sen. Steve Fenberg of Boulder said that the bill would allow those utilities to invest in natural gas, but should those investments fail to pan out, consumers could be on the hook to pay for the losses.
One provision that upset Democrats on the ag committee Wednesday was to require owners of electric-powered vehicles to kick in $35 annually in registration fees, to account for lost gas tax revenues because the cars don’t use gas. That rankled Sen. Rhonda Fields of Aurora, who said raising the fees would hurt her middle-income constituents, who “didn’t send me down here to raise taxes and fees.”
The provision to extend the energy office by another four years is a tactic that Democrats claimed Wednesday holds the office hostage in order to advance Republicans’ energy policy ideas.
It’s a familiar tactic: two years ago, Senate Republicans ran a bill to extend the life of the Office of Consumer Counsel within the Department of Regulatory Agencies. That office advocates for consumers on public utility matters, including telecommunications. In a standoff that went to the last day of the 2015 session, House Democrats walked away from their demand that the office continue its role on telecomm, recognizing that if they didn’t back down, Senate Republicans would let the bill die and the office close.
Scott’s bill won widespread support from Western Slope organizations and officials, including Mesa County commissioners; Club 20, a Western Slope advocacy group; and the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, which represents seven counties on the Western Slope.
Also in favor: Kathleen Staks, the energy office’s interim director, who said the bill would allow her office to expand its outreach in rural and low-income communities. She pointed to a list of wins for the office over the last five years, including weatherization services for low-income households, which she said had saved 15,000 households more than $6.7 million on their energy bills. Another program, on energy performance in public buildings, saved local governments $31 million annually on energy costs.
Responding to questions about the repeals of certain renewable programs within the energy office, Staks said several were either obsolete or lacked sufficient interest.
Scott, in a statement last week, said the office never fulfilled its potential and needed new direction. The office’s mission should be broadened to include a greater variety of energy issues, such as hydroelectric and nuclear energy, as well as “the traditional workhorses of Colorado’s energy economy, like natural gas and coal.”
“The energy office’s original focus on renewables may have been justified at the time, but times have changed, use of renewables have gone mainstream, and I came to believe, based on hearings we held at the Statehouse this session, that Colorado shouldn’t fence-in a potentially limitless energy future by focusing on one option to the exclusion of others,” Scott said.
The bill moves on to the Senate Finance Committee, where it is expected to be heard Thursday.
Photo credit: Richard Graham, via creative commons license, Flickr