Seeking Substance in the Energy Debate

The following article originally was published February 15 by Grand Junction’s Free Press.

Seeking substance in the energy debate

by Linn and Ari Armstrong

Scott McInnis, the presumptive Republican candidate for governor, blasted his Democratic opponent John Hickenlooper over energy policy in a February 9 speech to the Colorado Mining Association.

Hickenlooper, McInnis said, “sat on his hands” as the state’s Democrats imposed “rules and regulations” that took “Colorado from number one to rock bottom on states that are friendly to do natural gas and energy business in” (as reported by the Denver Daily News).

The next day,, a partisan left-wing group, accused McInnis of lying. Citing a story in the Daily Sentinel, Colorado Pols claimed, “Colorado in fact issued more drilling permits than surrounding states last year.” Moreover, as the AP reported, “1,487 new wells were drilled in Colorado last year.”

So who’s telling the truth? Did the Democrats’ controls drive energy-related jobs out of the state, or did Colorado’s energy industry continue to perform relatively well despite the recession? Both sides are exaggerating their claims and ignoring important nuances of the discussion.

We know that going through energy policy takes some hard work. We urge readers to stick with us — especially if you intend to vote this November. If you don’t want politics to be controlled by big money and hyperventilating attack ads, you have to vote based on ideas and facts. That means you have to research the debates and seriously question candidates on both sides.

Energy is important. As the AP reported earlier this month, Grand Junction “led the nation with job losses last year,” suffering particularly from “job losses in the energy field. Its unemployment rate nearly doubled in the same period last year, from 4.7 percent to 9 percent.”

We’ve been advocating the Politics of Substance with our columns and with our candidate survey. McInnis, by the way, has promised to answer our survey, and we hope Hickenlooper does as well. We will publish their complete comments at, and we look forward to evaluating their remarks. See

Regarding the energy debate, the first thing to notice is that the guy painting the rosy picture of Colorado’s energy industry is David Neslin, the director of the state’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Neslin favored the rules that McInnis wants to change.

Any direct comparison between Colorado and its neighbors is worthless. It’s sort of like saying the Denver Nuggets are doing great because they can outplay the local high school team. What matters is not how Colorado compares to its neighbors, but whether Colorado is performing to its potential.

Walk over to your computer and search the internet for “Piceance Basin.” You will find a Geological Survey map showing a large region of Western Colorado encompassing Grand Junction. What’s important about this area is that it is a major reserve of natural gas (as Gary Harmon described in a great article over at the Sentinel last December).

What about the claim of new wells drilled in Colorado last year? The number of wells drilled tells us little about trends of overall production. Plus, what matters is the change in new wells from year to year.

We talked with Neslin on the phone, and he said “production was up a little bit in Colorado last year from 2008.” But would production have been even higher with improved rules?

Morever, the comparison to 2008 is misleading, because companies were already changing their behavior in 2008 in anticipation of the rules. Last year the Denver Business Journal reported that, when Encana Oil & Gas had $500 million to spend, “None of it went to Colorado; all of it went to operations in Wyoming, Texas and elsewhere, according to the company, which cited ‘uncertainty’ about the proposed regulations for its decisions.”

The upshot is that the article by Colorado Pols calling McInnis a liar is a partisan hack job that twists the facts to support its political agenda.

But McInnis is also stretching the facts. The political rules may be one factor hampering Colorado’s energy industry, but it probably isn’t the most important one.

In a media release, McInnis claims that Colorado is losing energy jobs to Pennsylvania because of the relatively better political rules there. But, as Harmon wrote, extracting the natural gas from our region can be difficult. Harmon wrote that “the Marcellus Shale formation in the eastern United States has become more attractive” due to drilling advances. (It’s also close to eastern customers.) That formation happens to run through Pennsylvania.

Energy policy is far too important to be dumbed down for partisan advantage. People’s jobs and livelihoods depend on energy production. As consumers we depend on natural gas to heat our homes and provide additional energy.

We think McInnis can make a good case that overbearing rules have softened Colorado’s energy industry relative to where it could be. But it is a complex field influenced by technological advances, federal rules, geology, prices, and costs. McInnis will be more persuasive when he offers the relevant context and nuance.

Linn Armstrong is a local political activist and firearms instructor with the Grand Valley Training Club. His son, Ari, edits from the Denver area.