Governor open to suggestions at West Slope meeting

Governor John Hickenlooper
Governor John Hickenlooper

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper was not only receptive to, but also supportive of, many of the suggestions he heard during a meeting in Grand Junction.

Hickenlooper voiced his approval for everything from exporting liquid natural gas to improving Internet access to further promoting tourism. He also reiterated his support of the coal industry, although not necessarily a lawsuit to challenge a proposed federal plan to reduce carbon emissions from power plants.

Hickenlooper also said he agreed with a proposal to increase the state gasoline tax or find another source of funding for transportation projects, although he was skeptical voters would approve such a measure. “Politically in this state, it’s going to be a very hard lift.”

Hickenlooper met with a variety of regional industry and government representatives at the two-hour roundtable meeting at the Mesa County Workforce Center. The event was the second organized by Club 20, a Grand Junction-based coalition of businesses, governments and individuals in Western Colorado.

Les Mergleman, chairman of Club 20, said in his introductions the West Slope continues to face challenges in the aftermath of the recession, and the meeting afforded an opportunity to talk about those problems. “It seems like we just can’t get dug out of a hole.”

The meeting covered a range of topics, including public lands, energy development, economic development and transportation.

One of the first topics discussed at the meeting was a state effort to avoid a listing of the sage grouse as an endangered species and the potential land use restrictions that could result.

Hickenlooper said he’s hopeful conversation efforts in Colorado and other states will mean a listing won’t be warranted. “If we can pull this off, it will be historic.”

But the challenge still will be to implement a sage grouse plan that accommodates some of the unique situations in Colorado, he added.

Various issues related to energy development also were discussed, including Hickenlooper’s support for the construction of a facility in Oregon to export liquefied natural gas (LNG). The facility is seen as a way to sell natural gas produced in Western Colorado on a global market.

Hickenlooper said it makes sense to export LNG given that natural gas prices in some foreign markets are seven times higher than the domestic market.

“We’re going to push that as far as we can,” Hickenlooper said.

An open market could similarly help oil producers if they were allowed to export their products, he added.

Hickenlooper was praised for his efforts to keep the Colowyo Coal Mine in  Northwest Colorado open in the aftermath of a lawsuit against the federal government for approving a permit to expand operations. But he was told the coal industry in Colorado faces others challenges, including a federal plan to reduce carbon emissions from power plants.

Hickenlooper said he believes coal will remain a fuel for electric generation for a long time even as the use of natural gas as well as wind and solar power increase.

In the meantime, though, he said he would continue to support the coal industry, including efforts to export more coal. “We will continue to support the industry as best we can.”

Asked whether or not he’d support a lawsuit to challenge proposed reductions in power plant emissions, Hickenlooper said he’d rather consider other options first, including efforts to involve the coal industry and other stakeholders in the process. The governor estimated that Colorado is about 80 percent on the way to achieving the proposed lower emissions standards.

Hickenlooper said he agreed that fast and reliable Internet access is important to rural areas of Colorado, as is greater redundancy that would reduce outages. But he also said there’s no simple solution to addressing the issue given the resources that are needed. One possible approach might be to find a way to work with private enterprises to bring more broadband to rural areas, he said.

As for economic development in Western Colorado and other rural areas of the state, Hickenlooper said there’s potential for a new state program establishing tax-friendly zones to attract new businesses as well as the creation of  a state outdoor recreation industry office. The important thing, he said, is persistence. “The key is you just keep trying.”

Hickenlooper also said he remains committed to reviewing state laws and regulations and changing those that hinder business.

The governor said he remains committed as well to efforts to promote tourism in Colorado, including rural areas. There’s potential as well in marketing the state to entrepreneurs and business owners to convince them not only to visit, but relocate their operations, he said.

Asked whether or not he’d take a leadership role in supporting an increase in the state gas tax or another mechanism to generate more funding for transportation projects, Hickenlooper said, “I couldn’t support you more.”

He said Utah spends twice as much as Colorado on highways with only half the population.

But such an effort would require broad consensus in the State Legislature and, ultimately, the support of voters.