The Republican candidate to be Colorado's next governor, Walker Stapleton, is all in when it comes to the proposed Jordan Cove liquefied natural gas export facility in Oregon, but his Democratic counterpart, Jared Polis, is not so much.
Polis said he likes the idea of boosting the state's economy, particularly on the Western Slope that's still recovering from the recent recession, and appreciates that the Jordan Cove project comes with long-term natural gas supply contracts, which could mitigate the industry's natural boom-and-bust cycle.
"Whenever you have that long-term predictability in place, you can justify greater deployment of capital," he said. "We always would love to see providing more sustainability over time and not having these huge peaks and valleys in the economy. Anything we can do around long-term planning is always going to be a net plus for western Colorado."
Still, the congressman said he has concerns about what impact increased drilling to supply the Jordan Cove facility could have on residents who live near wherever those wells would be drilled.
The $9.8 billion project still awaits final approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, a three-member panel that rejected the idea in 2016 when Democrat Barack Obama was president.
But now with Republican Donald Trump in the White House, and that panel reconstituted with conservative members, it is expected to get that approval.
What that means for Colorado, local officials here say, is an increase in natural gas drilling, particularly in the Piceance Basin, which has the second-largest deposit of natural gas in the nation.
Polis said he generally favors projects that would enhance the Western Slope's economy, but stopped short of saying he would support the Jordan Cove project as a bipartisan group of statewide elected officials already have, including Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, a Republican who represents the 3rd Congressional District.
Polis said Stapleton has been trying to use the project as a way to gain votes, and is doing Coloradans a disservice as a result.
"It's an important role for governors to bring people together on projects like that, but I don't think that anything like that should be used as a political bludgeon like Walker Stapleton is attempting to do," Polis said. "How can we bring people together around this? How can we address, for instance, legitimate environmental concerns around any projects like Jordan Cove, and make sure it's a net benefit to western Colorado and for the country?"
Stapleton's first visit to Grand Junction after winning the June primary was to discuss the project, calling for finding ways to expedite its construction.
As things stand now, the Canada-based company that wants to build the facility in Oregon's Coos Bay, Pembina Pipeline Corp., hopes to get FERC approval by the middle of next year, with an expectation of shipping its first tanker of gas to Asian markets by 2024, the company said in its second quarter earnings report released earlier this month.
At the same time, the company plans to build a 229-mile pipeline connecting the proposed new facility with existing pipelines in Malin, Oregon. There, that new $1.5 billion line, to be called the Pacific Connector, would connect with the existing Ruby Pipeline that is used to send natural gas from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Northwest.
"The approach that Walker has taken to try to turn this into a political weapon, not only if somehow he winds up being governor, he's eliminated any leverage he has to try to make this project benefit Coloradans and create Colorado jobs, but it also is a divisive approach," Polis said.
Susan Alvillar, interim director of the Western Slope Oil and Gas Association, said it would be "helpful" if Polis educated himself about the project to understand what it could mean for the state's economy.
While there's no way to know about how much drilling activity the project would spark in western Colorado, she said the state has plenty of responsible drilling companies that already operate here and sufficient environmental and regulatory safeguards to deal with whatever production issues arise.
"We hope that candidate Polis will take the time to learn about the project, take the time to express his concerns to folks that can answer his questions, and operate in an atmosphere of knowledge," Alvillar said. "We think at the end of the day, that will cause him to understand why western Colorado supports the project."
Stapleton said there's no reason why Polis can't show support for the project now and address environmental concerns when the time comes.
"Congressman Polis presents a false choice between protecting the environment and growing our economy," Stapleton said. "It's possible for us to have a responsible energy industry. As governor, I will work with community leaders, industry and environmentalists to make sure Colorado continues to lead the country in responsible energy development."
Whoever becomes the state's next governor is going to have to deal with a lot of drilling issues regardless of what happens with the Jordan Cove project.
The two candidates are opposed to the proposed ballot measure this fall to increase the state's 500-foot setback rule on new drilling to 2,500 feet. They aren't on the same side, however, on a counterproposal supported by the oil and gas industry in another ballot measure that would require governments to compensate property owners for any law or regulation that lowers the fair market value of their property, such as a ban on drilling.
"That would be a disaster," Polis said. "Either one of those initiatives would create a nightmare for the next governor."
Jerrod Dobkin, Stapleton's spokesman, said his boss is supportive of the concept behind the so-called takings measure, currently known as Initiative 108, but is still reviewing it "to fully understand the ramifications" of the proposal.