NOONAN: Renewables can transform the state’s regulatory environment

Author: Paula Noonan - March 7, 2018 - Updated: March 6, 2018

Paula Noonan
Paula Noonan

Renewable energy disruption may bring regulatory relief to Coloradans if Xcel pursues wind/solar energy bids to replace two coal-fired power plants.  Xcel brought the bids to the Public Utilities Commission recently, showing that wind and solar are now more than competitive with oil and gas for electricity production.

The economics of switching to renewables will only get better into the next decade. Jim Robo, CEO of NextEra Energy, the largest utility in the world now based in Florida, predicts that in the 2020s, solar and wind power distribution will be less expensive to build and operate than running existing coal and nuclear plants.

Meanwhile, at the most recent Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission session, director Matt Lepore and commission members revealed new regulations on small oil and gas lines that move hazardous materials and waste from wells to off-site collection and storage sites. These lines are part of the intricate network of pipes of varying sizes that move oil, gas, and fracking waste from place to place, often near populated Front Range communities.

It became clear that COGCC regulations were not going to make it easy for local governments or citizens to figure out where the lines are located for safety and public health purposes. It seems that neither the commission nor oil and gas companies know exactly where all the lines are.

The regulations were developed against a backdrop of dramatic oil and gas events in the state. At least 14 fracking fires and explosions occurred, an industry employee was killed at a well site, and an explosion in Windsor sent a plume of toxic gasses into the air, blowing south along the Front Range.

A federal agency, the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA), tracks major pipelines used by the oil and gas industry and makes their location available online on the PHMSA website. The new COGCC regulations take the opposite approach.

The commission will not provide online access to flow line maps for reasons of possible terrorism. The COGCC also declared that flow lines are “critical infrastructure,” which means extractors can deny local governments access to the information.

Now that wind and solar are about to become dominant for making electricity, several implications arise. Moving toward renewables means moving away from drilling and pipes that leak, break and require regulation and inspection. It means that industry can remove unused or damaged pipe, thus taking out some of the risk of electricity production.

New state leadership will have to deal with whether Coloradans should absorb the health and safety hits of ongoing drilling as oil and gas companies make their profits from product shipped overseas.  Employees in oil and gas, as with coal, deserve lots of economic and training support to shift to other jobs.

Finally, when the transition to wind and solar does occur, local governments and citizens can stop tangling with the state and oil and gas companies and go back to their business of planning their communities without drilling rigs and pipes showing up as neighbors.

Paula Noonan

Paula Noonan

Paula Noonan owns Colorado Capitol Watch, the state’s premier legislature tracking platform.