Prospects uncertain for Colorado Energy Office’s renewal

A fracking rig on Colorado's Front Range. (Kevin J. Beaty)

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By James Anderson, Associated Press

The Democrat-led House has advanced a bill to renew a Colorado energy office over the objections of one of the bill’s sponsors.

The House majority leader, Rep. K.C. Becker, urged passed Tuesday of the bill. Next to her stood the bill’s House co-sponsor, Republican Rep. Lori Saine, who told her colleagues to vote “No.”

Saine was angered by House action earlier Tuesday that stripped the bill of elements backed by Republicans, who favor an all-of-the-above promotion of energy in the state, including fossil fuels and nuclear energy. Democrats want the office to continue its focus on renewable energy.

Funding for the Colorado Energy Office expires June 30. A formal House vote on Wednesday is needed to send the bill back to the Senate.

Tuesday’s changes on a party-line vote included the restoration of several renewable energy programs overseen by the Colorado Energy Office. The bill’s Senate sponsor, Republican Ray Scott, had said he had bipartisan support in the House when he proposed eliminating those programs.

A livid Saine told the House Judiciary Committee that the amendment, backed by Becker, was “disingenuous.”

“The Senate sponsors are shocked,” Saine said.

She especially objected to the elimination of language that would require Colorado’s oil and gas regulators to report on their inspections of natural gas lines statewide to the Legislature.

That language mirrored Gov. John Hickenlooper’s order to energy companies to identify and inspect natural gas flowlines within 1,000 feet of buildings after an April 17 home explosion killed two people in Firestone, a small town in northern Colorado that’s in Saine’s House district.

Investigators said gas escaping from an abandoned flow line was to blame.

The committee also dropped language calling for the energy office to promote nuclear energy and increasing fees for electric vehicles, whose owners, Scott maintains, don’t pay their fair share into Colorado’s highway fund.

The energy office’s future is suspended between Democrats who want to continue its focus on renewable energy and energy efficiency, and Republicans who insist that coal, nuclear and other fuels be part and parcel of its portfolio. Becker said she still hopes a compromise can be reached to new the office, whose funding ends June 30.

The Legislative session ends Wednesday.

The GOP-led Senate passed the bill earlier Tuesday after a last-minute protest from Democratic Sen. Matt Jones, who insisted that “the direction we should be headed is a clean energy economy.” Jones cited climate change, methane emissions and breathing ailments aggravated by fossil fuels production in protesting the cuts.

Scott’s bill also makes it easier for some public utilities to produce and stockpile natural gas as a hedge against price hikes. Colorado regulators have stymied previous efforts to do so by Xcel Energy and Black Hills Energy, concerned the utilities would pass the costs of natural gas stockpiling to consumers.

Scott wants to cut the office’s budget from $3.1 million to $2.1 million.

Scott, whose western Colorado district is rich in natural gas, says Colorado is losing out on severance taxes that are levied on companies that extract minerals, oil and gas because state utilities are buying natural gas out-of-state.

He cites the example of Utah-based Wexpro, which in 1981 won state permission to develop natural gas for its own utility, Questar Gas. Wexpro says it’s saved Questar customers in Utah and parts of Wyoming and Idaho some $1 billion in natural gas power costs.

The bill would eliminate underused Colorado Energy Office programs promoting energy savings. Since 2012, the office has helped 15,000 low-income households install energy-saving items, promoted irrigation and power-saving projects on farms, and encouraged the installation solar panels and wind turbines — two technologies that Scott says have matured enough to do without government incentives.