Legislator calls for meeting to address West Slope slump

Kelly Sloan
Kelly Sloan

Kelly Sloan, The Business Times

A Grand Junction legislator has requested an urgent meeting to address an underperforming economy in Western Colorado.

“Western Colorado is on life support,” State Rep. Ray Scott warned in a letter to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Scott, a Republican, asked for an emergency meeting with Hickenlooper and the Office of Economic Development and International Trade to explore ways to bolster the West Slope economy.

As of press deadline, the governor’s office hadn’t yet responded.

Scott stated in the letter that more than 600 businesses in Mesa County were lost between the fourth quarters of 2008 and 2012 and unemployment increased 80 percent between 2008 and 2013. “Our labor pool has all but disappeared, and the need for public assistance is straining local and state resources,” he said.

Scott said several events have contributed to the stagnation of the regional economy, including the idling of the Elk Creek coal mine near Somerset, an announcement Encana is suspending its drilling operations in the Piceance Basin and a subsequent decision  by the  energy services giant Schlumberger to move its operations out of the region and the closure of the Shell Oil oil shale research project.

Scott also mentioned a number of pending regulations that could hurt the West Slope economy, among them tighter federal emissions restrictions on coal-fired electrical plants, tougher state air quality rules and a potential listing of the greater sage grouse under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Scott offered several recommendations he said should be considered:

  • The suspension of any state rules and regulations that impede or reduce efficiency for businesses.
  • A temporary suspension of state licensing fees paid by Western Colorado businesses for one year.
  • The  establishment of mechanisms to allow a more equitable return on dollars  sent to Denver from Western Colorado – including additional funding for economic development and tourism marketing.
  • Active promotion of liquid natural gas exports and the construction of related infrastructure as a way to access more markets for Western Slope natural gas.
  • The removal of any barriers to open export markets for Western Slope coal exports to China and other countries.

Scott also suggested the governor’s office issue an emergency request to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to recognize the legitimacy of energy leases on the Roan Plateau in Western Colorado and to take a similarly proactive approach to defending the state’s economic interests on the plateau.

Those leases are undergoing an additional court-ordered environmental review following a lawsuit brought by several environmentalist organizations. If the leases are withdrawn,  the state could have to refund more than $56 million.

Scott recommended setting up a task force to examine the feasibility of relocating certain state agencies to the Western Slope — especially those agencies which have the greatest effects on the region.

The goal for the high-level meeting, Scott said, would be to formulate not only a plan, but specific actions to improve the economy in Western Colorado.

Scott stated in the letter his proposed measures might seem “ambitious,” but are necessary. “We are at the point now in Western Colorado where strong action is called for. Government cannot create wealth and prosperity or long-term growth-generating jobs. But it can foster a positive environment for the private sector to create jobs, growth and prosperity by removing many of the artificial obstacles in its path.”

The letter comes on the heels of  a recent visit by Hickenlooper to Western Colorado during which he heard government leaders voice concerns. Hickenlooper pledged to help the region oppose a listing of the grouse under the Endangered Species Act as well as draft a “made in Colorado” plan to avoid overly restrictive land management practices for grouse habitat.

Scott told Hickenlooper he and others were encouraged by the visit, but that more must be done. “This cannot be a one-stop effort. The needs of the Western Slope are great, perhaps the greatest in the state, and many of the problems are within the control of elected leaders like you to control and remedy.”