Colorado Votes: A Look at the Impact of Presidential Energy Policy

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The presidential candidates have very different visions for the nation’s energy policy. And Coloradans should pay attention. The state has a mix of coal, natural gas, oil and wind … and lots of federal land. That means it’s uniquely positioned to feel the impact of either candidate’s energy policy. Colorado Public Radio’s Ben Markus has more.

Reporter Ben Markus: One huge difference between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney is the matter of federal lands. Like the Roan Plateau. This high stretch of land north of Rifle is prized by anglers, environmentalists ... and energy companies, who believe it could hold a vast reserve of natural gas. But lengthy environmental reviews and lawsuits have stalled drilling.

Kurt Kunkle: The uniqueness of this landscape outweigh the need to drill for oil and gas.

Reporter: Kurt Kunkle is with the Colorado Environmental Coalition. He motions to his left and points out the gas wells that already dot the landscape.

Kunkle: If you look out this way, we’re basically surrounded by it. There’s wells everywhere. So they’re producing here, they’re successful here, let’s just leave the top of the Roan Plateau alone.

Reporter: It’s lengthy battles like this that are a common feature of drilling on federal lands, according to Kathleen Sgamma with Western Energy Alliance, an oil and gas trade group.

Kathleen Sgamma: It certainly puts Colorado and the West at a disadvantage compared to other non-public land states.

Reporter: Governor Mitt Romney wants to end that disadvantage. Here he is challenging Mr. Obama at the first debate in Denver. Arguing that opening up more federal lands will help us become energy independent -- while also creating jobs

Mitt Romney: On government land, your administration has cut the number of permits and licenses in half, if I’m president I’ll double them.

Reporter: Across the country, permits and leases have fallen, but not as much as the Governor claimed. Colorado would have been a better example for him, drilling leases have fallen here by 81-percent since Obama took office. Though one big reason for that is federal lands here have lots of natural gas which isn’t as valuable as oil these days. But industry also complains that Obama Administration policies meant to avoid lawsuits and delays by including more environmental review upfront have actually slowed everything down. Industry spokesperson Sgamma says it now takes a staggering 307 days for the feds to approve a drilling permit.

Sgamma: That’s an average, so a worst case is years. And that can be after you spent 7-8 years getting your environmental analysis approved.

Reporter: To speed things up Romney wants to give control of federal land to state agencies. It only takes the State of Colorado about 30 days to approve a drilling permit. Bad idea, says Pete Maysmith, Director of Colorado Conservation Voters.

Pete Maysmith: That’s a core function of the federal government so to abdicate that, I think, would be a serious mistake. The other thing is, if you do that, I think you’re very quickly going to overwhelm state government.

Reporter: Maysmith argues that the state doesn’t have enough inspectors to handle the wells it’s supposed to monitor now. And he says it’s important for the federal government to take its time.

Maysmith: It actually takes good study and lets make sure that this is an appropriate place to drill. It’s not going to have negative impacts on say for example on wildlife habitat.

Reporter: There’s another big difference in Obama and Romney’s energy policy that’s already having an impact in Colorado. The wind energy tax credit is set to expire at the end of the year. Romney has said he would NOT renew it. That’s prompted ads from conservation groups like this.

Wind Ad: I’m Chris Maese , and I live in Pueblo, Colorado. Until a few weeks ago I had a job building wind turbines. I got laid off because Mitt Romney and his friends in Congress want to eliminate tax credits for the wind industry.

Reporter: 5-thousand Colorado jobs are supported by builders like Vestas and it’s subcontractors. And wind project developers like Michael Rucker who runs U-V Wind North America -- based in Boulder.

Michael Rucker: To just let that die suddenly for the sake of a political campaign is not really prudent public policy.

Reporter: But Romney argues that if wind is to succeed, it must stand on it’s own. That incentives for wind, which cost taxpayers about 1 billion dollars a year have distorted the market. For his part Obama believes the tax credit is vital to save the manufacturing jobs and a fledgling industry. And he also points out that oil and coal companies get their own subsidies. With the economy being the issue, neither candidate has mentioned climate change all that much. To the frustration of climate scientists like CU-Boulder professor Jim White.

Jim White: Interestingly this is one of those problems that gets worse and worse the less and less you do, so the more fossil fuels we burn the more CO2’s in the atmosphere the bigger the problem’s going to be. And ignoring it is not going to make it go away.

Reporter: A problem highlighted not only by Hurricane Sandy, but by one of the worst droughts and most destructive wildfire seasons in Colorado’s history. And a problem neither candidate will be able to ignore if it they are elected.

[Photo of the energy-dense Roan Plateau near Rifle, CO. Ben Markus/CPR]