On the 2012 campaign trail, energy has become a partisan lightning rod: Solyndra, the Keystone XL pipeline, and the so-called war on coal are hot-button fodder for TV ads used to excite the base and open the wallets of donors.
But when President Obama and Mitt Romney meet for the first presidential debate in Denver on Wednesday, Coloradans will demand a more serious discussion of a complex policy that profoundly affects their state’s economy and employment—and the choices of undecided voters.
A crucial swing state, Colorado is at the epicenter of the energy debate. The Rocky Mountain State is a microcosm of the nation’s changing energy picture: Its economy is driven by all forms of energy production but is also deeply entwined with environmental conservation and climate change.
On the state’s rugged western slope, companies extract oil and coal from some of the country’s richest fossil-fuel resources. Thousands of workers manufacture wind turbines and solar panels, which affordably produce about 15 percent of the state’s electricity. In Golden, just outside of Denver, a scientific brain trust works to develop new technologies at the federal government’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
In Weld County, housing prices and municipal revenues have soared since breakthroughs in hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” led to a boom in natural-gas production and job growth. At the same time, citizens’ groups there are protesting, fearing that fracking could pollute their groundwater or divert scarce water resources from crops.
Tensions are also rising over how much drilling should be done on scenic public lands that are crucial to the state’s tourism industry. The snow-capped mountains and rich pine forests additionally face a different kind of threat, as climate change takes a toll on trees and shrinks the snowpack that’s vital for supplying the parched state with water.
Colorado voters say they’re tired of the way energy policy has been framed as a partisan fight between green jobs and unlimited drilling.
“Nationally, the energy debate is ideological. That kind of debate is not helpful to us. The reality is that here in Colorado, these are all practical pieces of the economy,” said Tom Clark, CEO of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp.
According to Clark’s group, the state economy supports 37,700 direct jobs in the fossil-fuel industry and 21,000 direct jobs in the renewable-energy industry. Both sectors are growing fast: Between 2005 and 2011, the number of clean-energy jobs in the state grew at a rate of 6.5 percent, while conventional-energy jobs rose at a 4.4 percent clip.
Clark, who calls himself a “lost Republican,” says he hasn’t made up his mind how he’ll vote and plans to attend the Denver debate. He says that the candidates’ answers on energy and the economy could be a key to his decision.
Former Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat, made energy a cornerstone of his tenure, coining the phrase “new-energy economy” to describe what’s happening in Colorado. Like the nation as a whole, the state has long been dependent on fossil fuels; now, new technologies are driving a surge in low-carbon energy production and jobs there—with a helping hand from government policies.
“Energy policy is an important part of the presidential debate because it’s been such an important part of the advancement of Colorado. And we don’t want to go backwards,” he said.
Ritter helped put in place a slew of policies that are driving both the renewable-energy and natural-gas booms in his state. For that, he has won praise from Republicans—a reminder that even though energy issues are the stuff of partisan rallying cries in the presidential campaign, they are frequently bipartisan ground in regions where the sector is a major part of the economy. “I believe that the Republican Party, the party of conservationists, ought to embrace any marketable form of energy,” said Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo. “There are great market opportunities for wind and solar.”
In Colorado, that’s also due to a law passed under Ritter requiring 30 percent of the state’s electricity to come from renewable sources such as wind and solar by 2020, a more aggressive version of the national plan that Obama has tried—but failed—to push through Congress.
The surging growth of the wind industry has been driven in part by a $1 billion annual production tax credit set to expire at the end of this year. Romney says he would let the tax credit expire, while Obama is campaigning on the need to extend it in visits to wind-rich swing states.
In expectation of the tax credit’s demise, wind-turbine manufacturers in Colorado and elsewhere have laid off more than 2,000 employees this year. Those job losses have pitted Romney against his party in the state; eight of the nine members of the congressional delegation, including Gardner and other Republicans, want to extend the tax credit.
Eugene Urbina, 44, was one of the laid-off wind turbine workers. Formerly a pipefitter who travelled from town to town doing work on municipal water systems, he started working on the assembly line at the Vestas wind turbine Pueblo plant soon after it opened in 2009, and eventually rose to assembly supervisor. “The job was extremely good, and the experience was phenomenal,” he told National Journal. “In construction, you don’t get to be a supervisor if you don’t have field experience, but with this job, I was able to become a manager.” The job also allowed him to settle in one town – and to buy a home. Urbina lost his job at Vestas in August, as a direct result, he was told, over uncertainty about the wind tax credit. He’s still not sure who he’ll vote for in November: he wonders if Obama’s 2008 push for clean energy has lost steam – if the industry is truly sustainable on its own. “A lot of people left good jobs to come work at this factory – but maybe this isn’t something that works in the long term,” he said.
Then there’s the question of climate change. The state is Ground Zero for what scientists say is the nation’s most visible result of climate change: A mammoth pine-beetle epidemic has decimated a swath of forest estimated at more than 10,000 square miles. Climate scientists say that thanks to warmer temperatures at higher altitudes, the pine beetles are flourishing. Meanwhile, near the headwaters of the Colorado River, snow is melting earlier—and there’s less of it. This summer, drought, wildfires, and record-breaking heat ravaged the state.
All this has amped up the pressure and expectation for Obama and Romney to get serious about energy and climate issues in Denver. The League of Conservation Voters launched a petition urging debate moderator Jim Lehrer to ask pointed questions about climate change.
Mark McKinnon, a Colorado-based GOP strategist, told National Journal in an e-mail: “As someone who lives there, I can say with some authority that Colorado voters, as a result of recent fires, are a population generally sensitive to environmental issues. The candidates better have some good answers ready.”
This article appears in the September 29, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.