Colorado Energy Office revamp clears first hurdle

Sen. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction,

Senate Republicans have renewed efforts to promote Colorado’s energy sector by making changes to the Colorado Energy Office, and this time, they are finding common ground with Democrats by taming their bid for oil and gas investments. 

The plan to revamp the agency was approved by the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Energy committee on Thursday by a 9-2 bipartisan vote. In a follow-up to last year’s partisan stalemate, Sen. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, wants to reauthorize state funding for the agency and boost its focus on energy sources like nuclear, natural gas and hydropower.

“There’s billions of dollars to be invested in Colorado in our energy sector. We don’t want investors around the world looking at Colorado and going, ‘Well, their focus is just renewables,’” Scott, the lead sponsor on Senate Bill 3, told reporters earlier this week.

Last year’s bill sought to allow investor-owned utilities like Xcel Energy to purchase natural gas reserves to meet high-demand energy needs. It also sought an increase in registration fees for electric vehicles. This and other measures prevented lawmakers from reaching an agreement on how to reauthorize the agency, forcing it to rely on repurposed federal funds. The agency says it did not need to cut staff or programs.

The new plan leaves those provisions out, and so far has gained acceptance from three Democrats on the Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy committee. The bill still includes language promoting of renewables like wind and solar. And Conservation Colorado, an environmental advocacy organization, is neutral on the bill. 

Last year, the Colorado Energy Office, which dates back to a 1977 executive order by former Gov. Dick Lamm, funded community solar arrays and weatherization projects for low-income residents. And it is currently working with Utah to develop natural gas in the Piceance Basin in northwestern Colorado, according to a December memorandum of understanding.

The bill would broaden the scope of what the agency promotes to include hydroelectric and nuclear power. The bill also aims to clean up the statute by removing 30-plus pages of language dealing with mostly obsolete programs, according to Scott.

But the “all-the-above” energy focus still irks some Democrats, including Sen. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, who joined Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, in voting against the bill on Thursday. Jones wants the state to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions caused by burning fossil fuels.

After the committee vote, Jones pulled out a computer and pointed to the results of a Xcel Energy request for proposals showing the bidding prices for wind and solar with battery storage at 3.06 cents per kilowatt-hour, making it a price-competitive alternative to natural gas.

“That’s where we should be going,” Jones told The Colorado Independent. He is sponsoring a bill to require electric utilities to source 100 percent of their power with renewables by 2035. 

He says he remembers watching more than 160 homes go up in flames when he was fighting the Fourmile Canyon fire in 2010. He also remembers receiving directions to Longmont from state patrol in 2013 after bridges were wiped out due to a deluge. 

“We’re dealing with climate change and we’re going to continue dealing with it,” Jones said.

A controversial provision to require Senate confirmation of the office’s executive director was removed from the bill. Scott said the provision was about transparency. But it caused concern among some lawmakers after Senate Republicans voted down the re-appointment of Heidi Jeanne Hess as head of the Civil Rights Commission, citing concerns over Hess’ ties with the LGBTQ advocacy group One Colorado.

Last year, the bill to reauthorize funding for the Colorado Energy Office became the platform for a debate over energy policy. That debate could reemerge when lawmakers decide how much to fund the program in the days before adjournment in May. 

Scott originally suggested reducing previous state funding amounts from $3.1 million to $2.1 million, which would force the office to make staff and program cuts. But an amended version of the bill requires the agency to request funding from Joint Budget Committee. The bill will be considered next by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Kathleen Staks, executive director of the Colorado Energy Office, said she is optimistic lawmakers will pass a bipartisan bill that includes state funding once again.

“We really want to try to not have this be a political hot potato,” Staks said.  

Photo of Sen. Ray Scott, a Grand Junction Republican, by John Herrick.