Gov. Jared Polis faced tough questions Wednesday from the oil and gas industry during a luncheon chat with Dan Haley, executive director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.
Polis and Haley took center stage during COGA’s 31st annual Energy Summit at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver.
Haley said prior to introducing Polis that after the election, COGA decided to disagree with the new governor “respectfully.”
That didn’t stop Haley from challenging Polis on the impact of Senate Bill 181 on the industry, whether the governor supports the oil and gas workforce and his plans to push renewable energy over fossil fuels.
The measure, passed by Democrats in the General Assembly during the 2019 session, changes the mission of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), the state's key regulator of the industry. Previously, the commission’s top priority was promoting the industry, but after SB 181 the commission is tasked with protecting public health and safety first.
Next year, as was pointed out by Haley, the commission will change from a volunteer body to full-time paid commissioners, a change that Haley said the industry supports.
Polis offered strong support for a provision in SB 181 putting oil and gas development into the hands of local elected governments groups, a position he supported during last year’s gubernatorial campaign.
“It is the problem solvers on the ground close to the community who should be empowered to say how their community develops,” and that applies to far more than just oil and gas, he added.
He also pushed back against claims that SB 181 will lead to additional moratoriums on oil and gas development, stating that moratoriums took place before the measure passed and nothing in SB 181 changed that.
Polis dismissed questions on what the industry would look like once the COGCC has finished its rulemaking process sometime in the next two years.
“I’m not qualified to answer” what the price of oil and gas will be in two years. That's a question for an economist, he said.
Polis also spoke about what Weld County is doing to support the industry, including the creation of a new department. “I expect Weld County will continue to elect commissioners who are favorable to the zoning desires of the industry. Other counties will have a nuanced approach," he said.
Haley also asked Polis about the political rhetoric from Democrats who want to end fossil fuel extractions, pointing to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, whom Haley said wants to jail executives of fossil fuel companies. People feel nervous about their jobs in Colorado, Haley said.
“As a Democrat, I worry more about Trump’s tariffs” and the impact on infrastructure for oil and gas or damage to workforce readiness in cracking down on immigration, Polis replied. “I’m much more worried about who’s president today than who will be president in a couple of years.”
Polis explained that it’s really a matter of when people can start seeing savings from wind and solar. “How long do we want to subsidize legacy assets [like coal] that are higher cost or force consumers to pay more for electricity?” he asked.
This isn’t just a climate issue; it’s an air quality issue, he said. Polis also claimed that oil and gas workers shouldn’t worry so much about their jobs, since SB 181 has provided more certainty to the industry than there has been in the past, uncertainty he said is caused in part by ballot measures like Proposition 112 -- last year's failed ballot attempt to greatly push back oil and gas development from homes -- and similar efforts before that.
Will there be more legislation around oil and gas in the future? Polis said SB 181 addressed the state’s role, and now it’s up to local governments.
“I’ll mark you down for no major oil and gas” bills, said Haley, which drew laughs from the audience.
Is Colorado open for business for the oil and gas industry? Polis replied that as long as commodity prices are good, “you will have a good business. That has nothing to do with me” and less to do with state politics than politics tied to OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) or what’s going on in Venezuela, he said.
“But what you do and say does matter,” Haley pushed back. “We don’t have the ability to move markets,” the governor responded. “If every electric vehicle tomorrow was electric,” the effect on the market would be minimal, he said.
He also said that the work of SB 181 was intended to reduce the risk of future ballot initiatives and less of a one-size-fits-all solution to oil and gas, with the local control aspect.
“We want a Colorado that works for everybody,” whether it’s the people in tech, health care or the oil and gas worker who puts food on the table, he said. “We want to reflect the diversity of our state."
He called a Haley question on whether someone can drill for oil in a “blue” state “silly,” and that was also his response to an audience question on whether he would support fossil fuels if they could be carbon neutral.
“It’s a geological question, not a political one,” he said of Haley’s question.
Are the jobs of the oil and gas industry valued? Yes, Polis said.
“Your jobs are valued and you are an important part of the diversity of the state,” which drew the first spontaneous applause in the 45-minute session.
“We look forward to partnering with you and every industry to make sure we can all thrive. ... Focus on the economics, your business, your revenue and costs. There’s not a lot of worry about [for] regulatory uncertainty.”
Republican state Rep. Lori Saine of Firestone was in the audience for the speech.
“I’ll give the governor kudos that he showed up,” she told Colorado Politics. “That was a big deal.” She also applauded his acknowledgment of how important the industry and its workers are to Colorado.
“It just took him awhile to say it,” she said.
Saine, who’s running for commissioner in Weld County next year, said the governor can keep his promise and make sure that local control is exactly that, she explained.
Saine added there were no assurances to oil and gas workers that they won’t continue to lose jobs, and there’s no talk of how to replace those jobs. SB 181 isn’t a total ban on oil and gas production, but “when you have only two permits approved in Weld County, that looks like a ban to me," she said.
“He seems to echo what’s he’s said before,” she said. “There’s nothing to see here, Weld County will be fine. You all are important, but wink, wink.”