Energy policy and environmental regulation have been hot topics in Colorado politics for a long time. But at the Colorado state Legislature this year, there’s a new twist: A special committee devoted to energy and environmental issues in the Republican-run Senate.
The new committee turns the tables on Democrats, because they proposed the same idea just weeks before Election Day. Back then, Democrats expected to win full control of the state Legislature with the help of California billionaire Tom Steyer. Hillary Clinton was expected to win the White House.
The new committee would have pushed the anti-fossil fuel agenda of Steyer, Clinton and the outgoing Obama administration. But Clinton lost and the GOP maintained its one-seat majority in the state Senate. So the Republican leaders of the new committee will focus instead on “expected policy changes from the Trump administration” and how they will affect Colorado, one of the nation’s top producers of oil, natural gas and coal. No surprises there.
But there’s still a big unanswered question about the new committee: Which side of the Democratic Party will show up?
On one side, there’s the Steyer wing of the party, which wants to rid the state of fossil fuels, mandate the use of much more costly renewable sources, and give the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency expansive new powers over the state’s energy sector. On the other side, you have the blue-collar wing that supports oil, natural gas and coal production, and worries about job losses from anti-fossil fuel laws and EPA regulations.
In 2016, Steyer and national environmental groups made a huge play for dominance within the Democratic coalition. Together they spent well over $100 million, according to the Washington Post, in a crusade to make the environment – and especially climate change – a top campaign issue.
But the move backfired. It angered organized labor and some trade unions openly attacked Steyer’s agenda. “His vision of leaving oil, natural gas, and other fossil fuels in the ground kills jobs, drives up energy costs, and threatens to strangle our economy,” the Laborers International Union of North America warned months before the election. But the climate push continued, eroding Clinton’s support among blue-collar voters, especially in the industrial Midwest.
Nationally, the Steyer wing of the party refuses to give any ground after its humiliating defeat. “[I]n terms of what we did, and the strategy we took, we wouldn’t do anything differently,” Steyer told Reuters. And the California billionaire continues to minimize the importance of fossil-fuel jobs.
For now at least, Democrats on the new energy committee are adopting the same post-election strategy. They will “stand strong,” Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman (D-Denver), a member of the panel, told The Colorado Statesman. “Colorado has been at the forefront on moving toward cleaner energy and we don’t want to slide back,” she added.
Guzman is joined on the committee by State Sen. Matt Jones (D-Louisville), who also holds the newly created position of Deputy Minority Leader for Conservation, Clean Energy and Climate Change. According to the Durango Herald, Jones “has led many of the anti-fracking fights at the Capitol.” He’s also been a staunch supporter of EPA regulations that crack down on fossil fuels, especially coal.
“We have to be very aggressive with these rules,” Jones told an EPA field hearing in Denver. “EPA, stay strong.” Elsewhere, Jones has been dismissive of energy and mining and their critical role in the state’s economy. “We need to keep Colorado an attractive state & not an extractive state,” he said on Facebook.
Unfortunately, this kind of rhetoric puts Jones and Guzman on a collision course with reality. True, Colorado has a sizable renewable energy industry and the state has imposed some aggressive – and controversial – renewable energy targets for the future. But at the same time, 89 percent of the energy consumed in Colorado still comes from oil, natural gas and coal, according to 2014 data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Over time, as renewables get cheaper and more reliable, this will most likely change. But trying to force that transition with anti-fossil fuel policies will jeopardize thousands of jobs in Colorado’s energy sector and across the broader economy.
Blue-collar Democrats get it. Steyer Democrats apparently still don’t.
Simon Lomax is a consultant who advises pro-business groups and an associate energy policy analyst with the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.