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Western Governors Forging Paths to Mesh Energy Development, Opposition

Leaders in Washington, DC, and state governors across the country should take note of how western states are meshing environmental goals with growing oil and gas development, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said last Wednesday. If they did, some of the big issues at hand might be solved more successfully, he told an audience in Denver at the Colorado Oil & Gas Association's Rocky Mountain Energy Summit.

The Republican governor was joined by Colorado's Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, in a spirited discussion before a standing-room-only audience. They talked about how the western states, and in particular, Colorado, have learned to compromise in balancing the needs of their constituents with oil and gas production. It all starts with presenting the facts and then listening to both sides.

"I know how important it is to have voices speaking for the industry," Herbert said. "I'm a strong believer in federalism. States are the laboratories of democracy. We can listen and learn from Colorado."

Other states are engaging in similar discussions, said Hickenlooper. In all cases, a "pro energy platform" is one that allows a state to  grow economically. It's part of the social license to operate, said the former petroleum geologist.

"The industry is changing so rapidly...We've been moving toward cleaner energy for decades," Hickenlooper said, but with the lightning fast changes in technology that have led to huge growth in energy exploration and development, it's not happening as fast as some would like. "The public wants it to move faster."

Colorado and Utah have energy plans in place to help guide their decisions on how to move forward with all of the carbon-based and alternative energy options now on the table.

Two years ago Herbert issued Utah's 10-year energy plan, which employs an "all of the above" strategy (see Daily GPI, Jan. 30, 2012). "We also see states doing it a little differently...but everybody needs an energy plan. I wish the nation had a 10-year energy plan," he said. "States are leading the charge."

There's "enough room in the sandbox for energy development to coexist with landowners," Herbert said. "It's not a zero sum game, I've got to win, you've got to lose. It's absolutely win-win…”

Herbert, a self-professed "free market guy," said Utah's energy plan “does talk about all of the above, and I do mean all of the above, but the market should determine the winners and losers. Consumers determine what they like and what they don't like. What the consumer wants in Utah is affordable energy...sustainable energy...and they want it to be cleaner."

The western state governors have over the past few years been dealing with ways to preserve sage grouse habitat, often in energy development areas. The Fish and Wildlife Service said habitat is diminishing rapidly and it is considering listing the bird as threatened or endangered. If the grouse were to be listed under the Endangered Species Act, it likely would reduce a lot of energy development in the affected areas.

"We need to define what the problem is that we're trying to solve," said Herbert. "When it comes to sage grouse, are they concerned about habitat or are they using it as a tool to stop energy development?"

Western governors, particularly those in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, have worked on collaborative approaches to ensure habitat is preserved. Utah also came up with a plan that would preserve 94% of grouse habitat, but it was rejected by federal officials. Herbert is baffled as to why the state plan wasn't considered workable.

"I think it is some lack of desire by the federal government to engage with us," he claimed. "We're going to continue to forge ahead and keep this thing together, and present plans that are rational and reasonable...As in most compromises, not everybody's going to be happy...but we need to come together. If in fact we really care about sage grouse and habitat, we have to find a way to preserve that."

Hickenlooper believes that the western states can solve the sage grouse issues without federal intervention. "If we have the best people on the ground to protect habitat, we can do a better job for the sage grouse than any listing of any type [federal officials] come up with...We want to avoid too many broad, federal edicts."

States can work with federal officials, but it has to be an equal partnership, said Herbert.

"We ought to be partners, and we as a state ought not to be junior partners. We know what we're doing, and the states ought to be leading the charge on how to manage public lands."

The Obama administration is listening, according to Hickenlooper. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell is a frequent visitor to Colorado and other western states; she's from Washington. And she's become a willing partner to ensure the environment can coexist successfully with energy development, he said.

What's missing many times are the facts, said Hickenlooper. Colorado voters had been facing up to four initiatives on the November ballot that, among other things, would have allowed more local control over industry development. A compromise was announced last Monday, and an 18-member commission composed of members from all sides is to begin meeting to see if it can forge a way forward (see Shale Daily, Aug. 5).

It comes down to a simple thing, Hickenlooper said. "We and the industry haven't done a good enough job of explaining how clean the industry has become, that fracking [hydraulic fracturing] is a completely safe process." Industry began moving toward more engagement two or so years ago, but by then it was a little late, he added.

Dealing with facts is key, said Herbert. "It's hard for the oil and gas industry to talk about how wonderful you are...People take that with a grain of salt and discount what  you are saying. There's a lot more emotion" involved as people share their experiences that sometimes are overblown.

However, "we first need to inform ourselves. We need to understand the facts, the science," said Herbert. "Sometimes we are a little too partisan, and that doesn't solve problems. I think in our process, we make sure we come to the table, that issues are heard and considered and reasoned together to come up with solutions to the problems."

Once the facts are in hand as in the Colorado ballot initiatives, said Hickenlooper, "we reached out to the tech industry, the electronics industry, we led and brought together CEOs from different industries...It was a great place to start...then push ahead."

Influencing people's opinions on their misconceptions about drilling and its benefits, however, "is going to take years," said Hickenlooper.

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