The scene was surreal if unremarkable: four energy industry leaders preparing to discuss North American energy policy at the Global Energy Forum in Beaver Creek.
The gathering befitted any good industry conference except these panelists represented industries that have long been at political odds.
But here they were – representatives from wind, solar, hydro-electric and oil and gas – sharing equal footing — ready to answer questions. Seeing such a diverse spectrum of energy development on stage caused even the moderator to acknowledge the moment.
“I’ve never been a part of an energy panel like that. You had everybody. It made for a really interesting conversation,” said Michael Wara, Associate Professor at the Woods Institute for the environment at Stanford University.
The panelists, many with Colorado ties, included Chris Brown, President of Vestas Americas – a leading developer of wind energy, Brad Holly, Anadarko’s Senior Vice-President of U.S Onshore Exploration and Production, Paul Spencer, Founder and CEO of the Clean Energy Collective – a national leader in community-owned solar and Jacob Irving, President of the Canadian Hydropower Association.
Having leaders from the renewable energy sector seated together with one of the nation’s largest oil and gas producers served, according to panelists, as acknowledgement that the nation’s energy future will include a wide-array of energy sources – with Colorado potentially serving as the litmus test for an “all-of-the-above” approach to energy resource management.
“Colorado is uniquely positioned as everybody knows. It’s a great planes source. It’s a great solar source. And it’s a great oil and gas source. So you have all the actors in the same area,” said Spencer. “I think where Colorado has been really smart and fortunate and blessed is it’s also been progressive in almost every one of those areas. So it’s a fairly hot testing bed for what the future looks like and how we navigate it.”
But achieving a stable, diverse energy culture didn’t appear to be on the horizon. Many of the panelists used the panel discussion to tout the strengths of their industry while citing the weaknesses of their competitors.
The panelists also lamented the current political climate and inconsistent regulatory efforts which they said often favored one source over another or pitted energy sectors against each other or environmental interests.
“What we really need in regulations is stability,” said Holly. “In order to make long-term investment decisions we need good regulations but we need them to be consistent for a period of time so we can make good investment decisions and move forward.”
Spencer said many lawmakers tie themselves to specific energy interests and become entrenched in their beliefs instead of seeking out information about all energy resources which the panelists said can be tailored to meet a state’s needs.
“Somehow you got to get legislators who aren’t strongly connected to sources of money — in some way shape or form – so they can make a good neutral, well-educated decision. And if that decision is solar is stupid and wind is fantastic then that’s the decision. But unfortunately they often can’t un-cloud their mind enough to even get to that type of solution,” Spencer said.
While many of the panelists expressed frustration over inconsistent regulatory efforts at the state level, the panelists did manage to agree directives from the new Trump administration will likely create unique challenges for energy developers and lawmakers.
Even Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, who provided the forum’s opening remarks, jokingly told the audience he had changed the state’s Facebook relationship status with the federal government to “it’s complicated.”
“I’m sure maybe you heard that the (Trump) administration has temporarily frozen grants from the EPA. We’re still trying to find out what the scope of that is going to be,” Hickenlooper said. “A lot of people don’t realize the EPA sets standards but it is states that implement them. We certainly hope that the new administration is going to pass along more and not less responsibility to states.”
Hickenlooper said he will continue to follow a policy that attempts to take the politics out of energy development by focusing on clean energy, costs to consumers and creating efficiencies in regulation to address the concerns of energy developers.
“At the state we have a whole team working full-time on (issues such as) where is the red tape we can get rid of, how do we reduce the length of the regulations and make sure that we maintain the key protections. And I think that effort has really led to a lot of successes,” Hickenlooper said.
Hickenlooper said the state, already home to large oil and natural gas plays, has in recent years “quadrupled the amount of energy it receives from wind and sun” – contributing to the state’s diverse energy economy. But the Governor said Colorado’s vast energy resources aren’t the only reason the state may serve as a leader in energy development and regulation.
Hickenlooper touted the state’s significant energy research and development facilities including Vestas Americas’ wind facility in Brighten, CO. and the accompanying workforce the industries create including approximately 60-thousand employees in the renewable sector and 100-thousand employees working in the oil and gas industry.
But for the panelists who sought to flush out the future of North American Energy Policy, the success of their industries they say will depend on a government that creates regulations, standards and a level playing field – even as changes in technology and production costs continue to shape the energy landscape.
“We think regulation is important,” Holly said. “We think regulations do a lot to build confidence among the public, to hold the operators accountable and build trust in the system. But it needs to be workable regulation. We do believe coexistence is possible.”