Energy office bill clears first hurdle

DENVER — There is bipartisan interest in saving the Colorado Energy Office from certain doom, but both sides of the political aisle aren’t on the same page when it comes to the specifics about how that would be done.

As a result, a measure introduced by Sen. Ray Scott to rescue and refocus the office cleared the GOP-dominated Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources & Energy Committee on a party-line 6-5 vote Wednesday.

While the measure, SB301, is aimed at directing the office to concentrate more on the fossil fuel industry as opposed to its historic focus on renewable energies — doing so partly by getting rid of several obsolete programs — a major part of the measure would allow publicly owned utilities to buy their own natural gas reserves, including their own drilling wells.

When utilities have tried to do that in the past, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission nixed their plans because they tried to pass those costs on to ratepayers. Under current law, utilities are allowed to pass on certain costs, such as ones related to infrastructure.

Scott and Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, had gotten the committee to amend SB301 to strip out language that could have allowed public utilities to pass on to ratepayers the costs of obtaining their own natural gas wells as a way of hedging energy supplies.

“When you drill to look for natural gas or oil, you take risks,” Cooke said in explaining an amendment he got onto the bill. “Anadarko, Noble and the other (drilling) companies take risks when they drill. So if a (utility) wants to do this, then they have to do it at their own risk and not at the hands of the ratepayers.”

When Democrats tried to introduce changes to the bill to make that clearer, Republicans blocked them.

“This is complex policy, this is serious policy,” said Sen. Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo. “I think we need to make sure there are protections, absolute protections for ratepayers.”

Garcia and other Democrats said the 58-page bill is almost too much to absorb with only five working days left during the 2017 legislative session, which is set to end Wednesday.

But of those pages, 36 merely strike certain renewable energy programs out of state law, such as the wind for schools grant program and the green building initiative.

Kathleen Staks, director of the office, told the committee those programs either are no longer being used, or have never been used since they were enacted.

Other Democrats on the committee were more concerned with other aspects of the bill, such as increasing registration fees for electric vehicles.

Without the bill, the energy office will close, which means any programs that it currently operates would end, too.

“The problem with any type of energy bill under this wonderful dome is that it gets twisted, turned and flopped into ideological concessions,” Scott said. “This bill is truly about a little molecule called natural gas.”

Several Western Slope counties and groups testified in favor of the measure, including Club 20, two Mesa County commissioners and the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado.

The bill moves to the Senate Finance Committee for more discussion.


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