Thanks in part to the efforts of local counties, a natural gas marketing initiative that the state of Colorado helped form and later walked away from has quickly been growing into a regional force.
The continuing addition of partners to what is now called the Western States and Tribal Nations initiative is making the state of Colorado looking ever-more conspicuous in its failure to participate.
The state of New Mexico is the latest to join the group, as announced this week. Wyoming also joined this year, as did Ute Indian tribes and even Baja California in Mexico, making the endeavor multinational in scope.
The initiative got going in 2017, when the Colorado Energy Office, under the administration of then-Gov. John Hickenlooper, and state of Utah officials agreed to oversee a joint effort focused on finding natural gas markets and ways to deliver local gas to them. A primary goal has been supporting the Jordan Cove liquefied natural gas export project in Oregon, which is seeking regulatory approvals and could serve as a longterm outlet for gas produced in the Piceance Basin and elsewhere in the Rockies.
But the Colorado Energy Office ended its involvement this year after Gov. Jared Polis took office. He has taken what he is calling a neutral position on Jordan Cove and gas exports.
As the state backed away from its leadership role in the initiative, Mesa, Garfield, Rio Blanco and Moffat counties undertook a stepped-up role and ensured a continued Colorado presence in the partnership.
Baja California's involvement in the expanding collaboration reflects the fact that Sempra Energy is considering building an LNG export facility there, which could provide further export opportunities for Rockies gas. New Mexico's newly announced participation adds a bipartisan touch because the state's governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, is a Democrat.
More accurately, it restores the bipartisan touch that existed when the Hickenlooper administration first helped spearhead the initiative. Polis has a more lukewarm view of the oil and gas industry than Hickenlooper did as governor, and even as a candidate stopped short of supporting Jordan Cove, worrying in part about the possible impacts on residents living near wells that would be drilled to supply the project.
That's a fair concern. It's also something that is being addressed by Senate Bill 181, which Polis signed this year and overhauls how drilling is regulated in the state, to better protect people, wildlife and the environment. The measures the bill required will enable Colorado to argue its oil and gas will be produced even more safely and cleanly than already is the case, better positioning it as a responsible source of gas for export projects.
Jordan Cove is seeking to address environmental concerns in Oregon as it works to obtain regulatory approvals. But the Sempra project shows that the gas marketing initiative's focus goes beyond one export project that isn't without controversy and may or may not go forward. If Colorado rejoined the marketing initiative, that would give it a seat at the table for exploring the range of export opportunities that could boost the industry. It also would provide a platform for the Polis administration to tout Colorado as an example for how to responsibly produce oil and gas.
How the United States and the world get their energy is changing quickly. Natural gas is playing an important role in that transition, helping replace dirtier coal in power generation. Gas-fired power provides an environmental upside compared to coal as long as steps are taken such as minimizing leaks of methane, a greenhouse gas, during gas development and production.
Natural gas development is a diminishing but still important part of the economies in Mesa and Garfield counties, but could play a particularly important role in more rural Rio Blanco and Moffat counties as they deal with the impacts of reduced coal mining and coal-fired power generation. Involvement by the state in regional efforts to find markets for responsibly produced Colorado gas would be one means for the Polis administration to proactively address the state's gaping urban-rural economic, and political, divide. And it would let the governor show a little more love for the oil and gas industry than he has to date.