Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Discrepancies in Colorado Energy Land Use Policies

There is a discrepancy playing out in Colorado’s energy landscape and energy regulatory policy that may be poorly understood by officials and consumers alike.  It has to do with local control versus establishing statewide standards for siting energy facilities of all types.  

This legislative session has seen the introduction of a number of initiatives to enhance local control over the siting of oil and gas drilling activity largely intended to allow local jurisdictions to restrict the proximity of drilling activity to residential developments. These initiatives were opposed by, among others, the Hickenlooper administration and its cognizant regulatory agency, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC).  The argument essentially put forth by COGCC was that there needs to be uniform standards for siting drilling activity and that it is the agency best qualified to monitor and regulate the industry and to establish and enforce such standards.  As a hoped-for solution to the dispute between factions seeking local control versus statewide control, the administration has convened a task force and charged it with an ambitious agenda of reconciling local concerns with state agency control in only a few weeks time.

In contrast, consider the regulatory regime governing the siting of electrical generation facilities.  While the state agency of competent jurisdiction most closely associated with the development of electrical generation facilities is the Colorado Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), with the possible exception of transmission line siting, it wields little influence in the siting of electrical generation facilities be they coal fired, natural gas fired, solar, wind, or otherwise.  Rather, satisfying environmental concerns, economic concerns, building permits, and land use issues for facilities outside of municipalities rests solely in the hands of county commissions through what is known as the 1041 permit process.  One of the areas in which the discrepancy between state control of oil & gas development versus local control of power generation has become most obvious is the siting of wind and solar renewable energy facilities, and one of the cases that has received considerable recent attention is the 1041 permit process for a concentrating solar power facility near the San Luis Valley town of Center in Saguache County.

The Saguache County project, proposed by California solar developer Solar Reserve, posits the development of two concentrating solar electric generation facilities known as “power towers.”  A number of groups expressed environmental, wildlife, view shed, and quality of life concerns with this proposal to construct two 656-foot towers smack in the middle of the Valley on land that is presently dedicated to agricultural use.  In a 2 – 1 decision, the Saguache County commissioners recently approved the Solar Reserve 1041 permit application.  In its decision, the County Commission eschewed the aforementioned concerns in favor of the promised economic impact that the development would have.  If you’re having difficulty envisioning what this project entails, consider that the development would create an industrial facility encompassing approximately six square miles, the central focus of which would be two towers that are only 50 feet short of the tallest building in downtown Denver.  It is difficult to envision how such a project, with the Sand Dunes National Park and Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east and the San Juan Mountains to the west, fits into the character of what is largely a pristine agricultural area.

A similar issue concerning the state’s abrogation of its siting authority to local officials can be found in the siting of wind turbines.  Here too, the absence of any statewide siting rules is troubling.  Apparently, it is acceptable for state officials to take a hands-off approach to the construction of a massive 400-foot wind turbine with a life expectancy of 20 years or more 300 feet from your back door, leaving the decision to local officials, but only a state agency may weigh in on the drilling of an oil or gas well the same distance away.  This certainly seems inconsistent.  To be fair, COGCC at least maintains a database of all such drilling activity, issues permits, and monitors each well while CPUC in particular, and the state in general, seem strangely disinterested in regulating any aspect of the construction of wind or solar facilities having at least as great an impact.  Moreover, the public would likely find troubling the fact that CPUC does not even maintain a list or require the most minimal registration for any renewable energy generation facility, be it a $400 million wind farm or a $50,000 solar installation. Sadly, attempts at requiring CPUC to maintain such information in the past were met with resistance by public officials, utilities, and developers alike.
The concern here is not whether oil and gas development should fall under local or state jurisdiction.  Nor should this be construed as an argument in favor of limiting additional renewable energy development, as some will undoubtedly assume.  What is of concern is that there is a troubling inconsistency in the regulation of different energy sources based, apparently, on little more than political agenda.