By Tom Burke and Ken Neubecker
Friday, April 10, 2009
GJ Sentinel Article
“The West is very rich in resources. The West is very rich in landscape beauty. As a result, the West is rich in contention.” “It’s not easy being rich.” — “What Every Westerner Should Know About Energy”
That truth, contained in a 2003 publication from the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado, has been evident since 2007, when the Legislature ordered a fresh look at rules governing oil and gas exploration and production in Colorado.
More recently, Coloradans became painfully aware of another truism — one about too many eggs in one basket — as a booming energy economy succumbed to the demons of oversupply, low prices, comparatively high production costs and lack of pipeline capacity.
For some, it’s easy to assign blame for layoffs and stacked drilling rigs to those new regulations. Having failed to block changes aimed at protecting public health, wildlife and habitat during the rulemaking process, some of these people now demonstrate against Gov. Bill Ritter, pen angry letters to newspapers and plan future political campaigns to reverse the rules and punish those responsible.
Yet the rules are only a small part of the picture and, as far as we can see, had little to do with the downturn.
It’s not easy relearning, once more, the harsh realities of up-and-down cycles of resource production.
Western Colorado has survived gold and silver booms and busts, a number of run-ups and subsequent collapses of uranium mining and processing, and several oil-shale cycles. The biggest surprise in the most recent surge and slowdown in natural gas production is that anyone is surprised that previous cycles are being repeated.
To us, this latest repetition of the traditional peaks-and-valleys cycle of natural resource extraction offers a reminder of the importance of other traditional drivers of Colorado’s economy. These economically stable activities include hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities reliant upon landscapes also subject to energy and minerals exploration.
Hunting, fishing and other wildlife-related activities provided more than 33,000 jobs in Colorado in 2007. A report for the Colorado Division of Wildlife by Denver-based BBC Research and Consulting also shows nearly $1.8 billion in direct spending by participants in those activities generated a total economic impact of more than $3 billion during 2007.
Tourism and agriculture are two other major industries in Colorado. Crop production, cattle grazing, rafting, skiing and other landscape-dependent activities also generate millions of dollars annually and employ thousands of Coloradans. Our recent growth comes not only from economic opportunities, but also from abundant access to outdoor recreation.
Our intention is not to pit one form of economic activity against any other, but to make the point that sustained job growth is dependent on a diverse economy. We believe that quality of life, while including a good job, also encompasses a healthy environment and the concept of neighbors respectfully discussing different perspectives.
Please, let’s seek an alternative to angry finger-pointing, roadside demonstrations and argumentative back-and-forth over just what’s responsible for the slowdown in natural gas exploration and production in Colorado. Author William Kittredge offered a guideline for that in his book, “Who Owns the West.”
“We need to realize that adversarial, winner-take-all, showdown political decision-making is a way to defeat ourselves,” Kittredge wrote. “Our future starts when we begin honoring the dreams of our enemies while staying true to our own.”
That might describe what some energy producers started doing even before the new rules were approved. According to Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Harris Sherman, two dozen firms jump-started the process of consulting with state agencies on comprehensive plans to work within the new guidelines.
Sherman and Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission Director Dave Neslin also say they’re open to changing rules that prove particularly troublesome during initial implementation. That reassurance indicates the final chapter in the new regulatory structure has not yet been written and that the new rules can be altered if conditions in the field prove that to be necessary.
Cooperation and flexibility provide ongoing opportunities to ensure that wildlife advocates, hunters and anglers, farmers, ranchers, rafters, skiers and communities throughout Colorado can work together with our state’s energy producers. Less time spent politicizing new COGCC regulations and additional effort working together toward responsible implementation can help create economic certainty and prosperity rather than continued exposure to the historical boom-and-bust cycles that have accompanied over-reliance on natural resource extraction.
Tom Burke of Grand Junction is the former chairman of the Colorado Wildlife Commission. Ken Neubecker of Carbondale is president of Colorado Trout Unlimited.