Bipartisan Methane Capture Effort Sidelined by Wind, Solar Power Backers

May 30, 2012
By

BAUMGARDNER: “Wind and solar interests didn’t like (the methane proposal) because they worried about losing a share of their tax credits."

DENVER– Any legislative bill offering renewable energy, jobs in rural Colorado and a cleaner environment sounds like a slam-dunk winner.  But evidently not if that renewable energy resource might take money away from wind and solar power interests that monopolize the market and receive millions of dollars in financial incentives.

Two such bills – blessed by Governor John Hickenlooper’s Energy Office – were passed with bipartisan support in the House and in the Senate committees, but never reached the Senate floor for a vote.

House Bill 1160, sponsored by Rep. Randy Baumgardner (R-Hot Sulphur Springs) and Sen. Gail Schwartz (D-Snowmass Village), would have captured methane gas from active and inactive coal mines to generate electricity.

House Bill 1351, sponsored by Rep. Jon Becker (R-Fort Morgan) and Sen. Lois Tochtrop (D-Thornton) aimed to generate power from synthetic gas derived from waste materials in landfills.

“The problem with (House Bill 1160) was that it rolled back the renewable energy standard and that is not consistent with our Democratic values,” said Senate Majority Leader John Morse.

Morse (D-Colorado Springs) received the bill in late March after it was passed by the House, but said he grappled with it for six weeks and decided to combine it with HB 1351. Though listed on the calendar for a third reading on the final day of the session, the journal stated, “The Senate has laid over HB12 – 1358 and HB 1351 to May 10, 2012” – essentially killing the bill.

“The governor asked who wouldn’t like this bill?” recalled Baumgardner. “Wind and solar interests didn’t like it because they worried about losing a share of their tax credits. But, if the bill had passed, it wouldn’t have been that much.”

HB 1160 critics supported the concept of capturing methane gas that some say contributes to global warming, but balked at the idea of including it under the state’s renewable energy standard that favors solar and wind power. Yet, the technology has been utilized in Europe for more than two decades and in Pennsylvania since 2008 – and both have deemed it a renewable energy source.

Even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency endorsed the bill because it provided a “local, clean energy source, improves air quality and safety, reduces greenhouse emissions (and) generates revenues and jobs.”

In addition to providing renewable energy at a lower cost than solar power, the process would prevent methane gas from seeping into the atmosphere. Felicia Ruiz of the EPA’s Climate Change Division stated, “Methane has a global warming potential 23 times greater than carbon dioxide.”

Tom Vessels, president of Vessels Coal Gas, estimated that the project near Paonia in Delta County would have “total economic benefits approaching nearly $2 million a year, including $800,000 in royalties paid to the Bureau of Land Management, $600,000 in increased property taxes, $180,000 in direct payments to local vendors” and add initial construction jobs and eight permanent positions to the company’s staff.

According to Vessels, this alternative energy resource wouldn’t impact the financial investment in wind and solar power resources. He stated in a position paper, “Over the past 15 years, more than $2 billion has been invested in Colorado wind farms. Likewise, the state’s solar industry has installed roughly $700 million of capacity in the same period.”

The bill was endorsed by Holy Cross Energy, Colorado Rural Electrical Association, Delta-Montrose Electrical Association, Colorado Rural Electric Association, Colorado Farmers Union, Colorado Mining Association, Aspen-Snowmass Skiing Company and others. It was opposed by Western Resource Advocates of Boulder, Rocky Mountain Climate Organizations and Colorado Environmental Coalition.

Vicky Mandell of Western Resource Advocates argued, “By including methane gas from coal mines in the standard, that would cannibalize funds available for promotion and development of renewable energy in our state, and allocate these funds for something that is not renewable… Wind and solar are renewable sources.”

“We worked to try to fix (House Bill 1160), but that was a slow process that didn’t come together,” said Morse.” Eventually, this bill was rolled into HB 1351, but that bill died on the last day of session.  So, technically HB 1160 did get to second reading, it was just in the form of HB 1351.”

“I’m not naïve. I do know what’s going to happen to this bill,” said Senator Tochtrop during a committee hearing on May 8, a day before the session ended. She said that powerful solar and wind power interests had lobbied against the bill’s passage.

As it rained outside the Capitol, she talked about the merits of the importance of tapping alternative renewable energy resources – and not just concentrating on solar and wind power – that are available 24 hours a day.

“Look at today, we don’t have any wind and we don’t have any sunshine,” said Tochtrop.

In addition to the components in HB 1160, her bill sought to create an alternative energy source, helped reduce landfill waste, add 55 permanent jobs in La Junta – and a private businessman was ready to invest $45 million in the project.

“It’s tragic the bill got shelved,” said Sen. Kevin Grantham (R-Canon City). “Apparently, the Arkansas Valley people in Colorado don’t matter to some in the legislature.”

Killing the bill, Grantham said, was akin to chasing an investor out of Colorado who wanted to create jobs, advance energy independence and cleanup the environment.

Though the bill never made it to the Senate floor for a final vote, it had also been complicated when a third bill was tacked on the measure. Senate Bill 178 would have removed credits that gave preference to energy renewable resources located in Colorado.

Under Amendment 37, passed by Colorado voters in 2004, “each kilowatt-hour of renewable electricity generated in Colorado shall be counted as 1.25 kilowatt-hours for the purposes of compliance with this standard.”

The in-state preferential treatment had gone unnoticed until a lawsuit was filed in federal court that claims Colorado’s Renewable Energy Standard violates the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution was filed in federal court.

Tochtrop said that merging HB 1160 into HB 1351 was not a problem – both sought to expand renewable energy resources and create jobs. But, SB 178 would have eliminated credits – and that opened a new and controversial discussion about the state backpedaling on incentives promised to power providers in Colorado.

“We talk about jobs all the time, but this was a really important piece of legislation,” said Tochtrop. “We got the blessing of the Governor’s office to go this way with the bill. He really wanted it to pass.”

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