Ronald Reagan, while he was still governor of California, was asked by William F. Buckley on his Firing Line television program, “is it possible anymore to be a good governor?” The premise of the question was to examine whether political power had become so centralized toward Washington D.C. that the individual states had become mere vassals of the federal government, left essentially powerless to steer their own ships; and, corollarily, to what extent authority had similarly drained from local governments to the state. This was in 1967, and the question is just as relevant today, perhaps more so.
So it is gratifying to watch on those occasions when local governments step up and reassert some manner of control over their economic fortunes. Such an occasion is currently unfolding on Colorado’s Western Slope.
Any change in government brings an adjustment in priorities, and among the adjustments made when Jared Polis was sworn in was the withdrawal of Colorado from the Western States and Tribal Nations Agreement, a multi-jurisdictional partnership focused on the development and export of natural gas.
Undeterred, four western Colorado counties simply took the matter into their own hands. Led by Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese — who also happens to be the driving force behind the movement to reclaim Colorado’s electoral voice from those who would surrender the state to the National Popular Vote — the Counties of Mesa, Garfield, Moffat, and Rio Blanco forged ahead with the partnership, affixing their signatures to the collaborative enterprise at a signing ceremony in Salt Lake City early in June.
In addition to those four Colorado counties, parties to the agreement include the Utah Governor’s Office of Energy Development, the Ute Indian Tribe, and the Wyoming Pipeline Authority, an official state organ established by the Wyoming legislature to help encourage the movement of its natural resources. The parties all have a common economic objective: fostering a market for the expansive reserves of natural gas under their feet.
While the current focal point of their efforts is a proposed liquified natural gas facility on the Oregon coast, eponymously known as the Jordan Cove project, longer term the group will collectively and more broadly advocate for development of LNG export facilities all along the west coast of North America, including proposed facilities in Baja California, Mexico and British Columbia. When completed, Jordan Cove would take in natural gas collected from various western basins, including the prolific Piceance Basin in western Colorado, and ship it to energy-hungry markets in the Pacific Rim, desperate for inexpensive, clean, and reliable fuel sources. Those markets most notably include Japan, which is begging for the stuff to meet its electrical generation needs, now that they scared themselves off of nuclear power for a few more years. The Japanese really would rather not lash themselves too closely to reliance on Russian gas supplies and the more ominous strings that would come attached to it.
While the Japanese are waiting with the remarkable patience they are known for, the U.S. can’t seem to bring itself to put all the pieces together for what ought to be a simple decision. The project, which floundered under the Obama administration for presumably ideological reasons, remains held up even under the more economically savvy Trump administration — most likely the victim of bureaucratic inertia within the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the type of entrenched officiousness that would probably take decades to flush from the tentacular federal administrative machine.
The jurisdictions represented in the agreement do not have decades, of course; they have roads to fix, cops and firefighters to pay, schools to build, and residents who need to buy groceries and make house payments today.
The Democratic leadership in the state has made a big deal of “local control”, especially in regard to regulating oil and gas development. It’s a murky issue — political and economic decisions ought to be left to the lowest feasible levels, but the key word is “feasible.” Few, I wager, would stake a position arguing for individual counties to administer their own air traffic control systems, for instance, or for the states to individually negotiate peace treaties with North Korea. On the other hand, it seems incongruous to suggest that local governments have the resources to regulate the highly technical extraction of sub-surface minerals which exist in basins spanning several jurisdictions, and yet we need a federal Department to Education to run their schools. Or that those governments have the wherewithal to regulate that extraction only more restrictively, but not more permissively.
Pugliese and her fellow commissioners have exercised the concept of subsidiary in much the way the framers intended when they etched it into the constitutional make-up of the nation. It says something about our system of self-governance that there are still places where that concept is taken seriously.
Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and a recovering journalist based in Denver.