Governor clear about priorities

A coalition trying to stop oil and gas development on some 200,000 acres west of Carbondale is having to start a dialogue with a new congressman who last year defeated an incumbent who had agreed to take up their effort.

But the group’s election setback may pale in comparison to the challenge of financially compensating companies for existing leases covering more than 100,000 acres.

“I just don’t think that their ability to buy back leases is realistic,” said Robbie Guinn, vice president of land for Houston-based S G Interests Inc., the holder of a sizable amount of that lease acreage.

The Thompson Divide Coalition, a broad-based nonprofit group consisting of conservationists, ranchers, recreationists and others, has been working to prevent drilling on public lands in an area running from south of Glenwood Springs to Paonia Reservoir on the south side of McClure Pass. It hopes to stop future leasing and buy back existing leases.

It scored a political victory last year when U.S. Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., agreed to carry legislation on its behalf. But then Salazar was defeated by Republican Scott Tipton of Cortez.

“We’re basically waiting to see after we have a conversation with Representative Tipton how and where he would like to go and how we might like to address the issue,” said Dorothea Farris, vice president of the coalition board.

Tipton indicated a willingness to bring an open mind and consider all sides regarding ongoing wilderness and other land-conservation efforts in his 3rd Congressional District. At the same time, Tipton spokesman Josh Green noted the potential costs associated with the Thompson Divide effort might present a problem for a congressman who has made a priority of dealing with the federal budget.

“We need to seriously look at spending. We’re on a tight budget right now,” Green said.

The coalition is pushing to protect the area’s watersheds, air quality, wildlife habitat, agriculture and recreation.

Guinn said he gives the group credit for its interest in honoring existing leases “and the idea of purchasing something rather than just trying to take it away.” But he said his company’s drilling for natural gas in the area to date has been productive.

“Obviously, if the price was right, we would (sell the leases), but how do we value these leases that we think have huge potential?” he said.

Doug Hock, spokesman for Encana Oil & Gas (USA), said that while Encana has no plans to develop its leases in the area in question, it would oppose them being taken without compensation, but it would be willing to listen to purchase offers. He said the company also believes the area should be kept open to drilling, and that stopping future leasing would be a bad precedent.

Gov. John Hickenlooper did more than just tell state lawmakers what initiatives he wants to pursue during his first State of the State address to the Legislature last week.

He also told them what he doesn’t want to see.

The Democrat, who earned wild support from both sides of the aisle for several things he said during that speech, said he wants to keep a recently approved hospital provider fee, said he won’t do away with a controversial new law that favors natural gas over coal, and said he isn’t likely to prohibit state-employee-partnership agreements, which Republicans say are unions in disguise.

Among the bills introduced into the 2011 session so far, one would do away with that fee, while another attempts to reverse former Gov. Bill Ritter’s executive order creating partnership agreements for state workers. Some lawmakers also are considering introducing a measure to undo the Clean Air Clean Jobs Act of last year, which called for converting old, coal-fired power plants to burn natural gas instead.

The provider fee, which the Legislature approved in 2009, is paid by hospitals based on what they earn from patients. It allowed the state to get an additional $600 million in federal Medicaid matching funds, which provided health care for about 100,000 more low-income Coloradans.

In his speech, Hickenlooper was explicit about keeping that fee and not touching the clean-jobs act, saying the fee reduced the state’s financial burden for health care, and the act will help clear the air and provide a new market for the state’s natural gas industry.

The governor has said he has no plans to roll back Ritter’s partnership order, either; nor will he rewrite regulations governing the oil and gas industry.

Instead, Hickenlooper said he wants everyone to focus on improving the economy and creating jobs, and he said that’s not something government can do alone.

“If we’re going to be successful getting more people in the state to take responsibility for their own world ... we need help,” he said in his office immediately after delivering that speech. “The state, we can help retrain people, we can help them rebuild their businesses. But ultimately it’s communities getting together and people believing that they have the controlling interest. As much as it’s my responsibility, it’s their responsibility.”

Still, of the 100 bills introduced into the Legislature so far, only about a dozen deal with the economy, job creation or the state’s budget problems.

Among them a measure by Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, to create a multimillion-dollar rainy-day fund, and a measure by Rep. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, to make it easier for homeowners to finance the sale of their own properties.

Other bills would continue the state’s foreclosure-delay program, create special arts districts to boost tourism, and exempt the state’s business-personal-property tax the first year that property is used.

One measure would bar pulling the tails of cows at rodeos. Another would make daylight saving time permanent.

And one would prohibit Coloradans who receive public assistance from getting that money through ATMs in strip clubs.


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