America's Greenest Governor Discusses Smart Growth, Clean Energy

Eco-Leadership

America's Greenest Governor Discusses Smart Growth, Clean Energy

Not many eco-leaders are tougher than the Governator, but even Arnold Schwarzenegger runs a close second to Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter.  In a single term, Ritter has worked wonders at advancing a clean energy future for Colorado, establishing a precedent for other states to move past dirty coal and earning Greenopia’s title as America’s greenest governor. In this Q&A, Ritter reports on energy security, leadership, and what’s next.

Anna Clark: During your four years in office, you have signed 57 pieces of energy-related legislation. Did making Colorado a model state for the "new energy economy" come at a price?

Bill Ritter: I would not say it’s come at a price. I’m not anti-business; quite the opposite. Cultivating a competitive edge in energy and sustainable development is what we should be doing. Creativity, innovation, and commercialization — these should be in 21st century America’s wheelhouse. That’s who we’ve always been as a country. This vision is among the things I am proudest of accomplishing during these past four years.

AC: You support renewable energy targets as a means of spurring job growth and creating economic opportunities for Colorado. How effective have you been in implementing this strategy?

BR: When I became governor, we had a 10 percent renewable energy standard for investor-owned utilities and no standard for rural electric utilities. In the first 100 days we passed a bill that said that investor-owned utilities would need to move to 20 percent by 2020. We brought in rural and gave them a 10 percent standard as well. But we didn’t stop there. After that we passed a bill saying that investor-owned utilities would go to 30 percent renewable (mainly solar, wind and biomass). This was very significant.  

None of this was easy. Battles occurred within constituencies. Inside the environmental community, we had those who wanted more. In the renewable energy community, some didn’t want us to carve out as much as we did. Small solar wanted market segmentation, large solar wanted something else. Ultimately, we managed to mediate among all the interest groups although the naysayers thought it couldn’t be done. Our utility Xcel Energy played a big role in helping to create a consensus. 

AC: What has been the reaction?

BR: I think the people of this state are very supportive of the New Energy Economy agenda. We’ve successfully shown how to utilize our domestic resources while simultaneously addressing environmental concerns.

AC: Transportation and smart growth in Colorado appear to be the only areas in which you did not receive high marks on the Colorado Conservation Voters’ scorecard. Why is this? 

BR: I disagree with this assessment. We put together a transportation commission. We got funding. The commission made a plan. We looked at how we cluster development so people can drive fewer miles to get to work from where they live. Unfortunately, the economic downturn hit. In these past four years we’ve seen the worst recession since the Great Depression, so we haven’t had much opportunity to push smart growth. We haven’t been building new highways, either. With the establishment of the commission we laid a great foundation. I’ll leave it to my successor to build on that.

AC: What policy mix would ensure America’s energy security without compromising the environment?

BR: Our balance of trade deficit weakens us in this country. This is due to importing hundreds of billions of dollars worth of oil each year.  If we domestically produce our own energy, it would help. Where the controversy arises is the debate over climate change. I believe that climate change is human caused, but there are so many other reasons to explore new energy solutions.

For example, we can exchange dirty inefficient coal plants for natural gas. It’s the cleanest of the fossil fuels. Compared to coal combustion, burning natural gas releases no mercury, very small amounts of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, almost no ash, and 35 percent less carbon dioxide. This provides tons of power and reduces emissions in a very significant way. In being realistic about natural gas, we can achieve a reduction in emissions of 20 percent by 2020 and work a plan to reduce emissions by as much as 80 percent by 2050.  

AC: Has the natural gas industry been a cooperative participant in your vision for a New Energy Economy? 

BR: There are some people in the natural gas world who see this as suspect, but those who are beginning to understand this see its potential.  When I became governor, I had problems with the oil and gas industry, but we’ve made reforms to ensure cleaner extraction. Now that we’ve done our best to manage drilling in a way that safeguards habitat and communities, I am comfortable with natural gas. By taking the long view in this conversation, I’ve now become a promoter of natural gas.  

AC: Would you say that partisanship is a culprit in the stalemate regarding a national clean energy policy?

BR: I wouldn’t say partisanship threatens to impede a 21st century energy policy as much as politics does. Based on my experience, this isn’t Democrats versus Republicans so much as lobbyists and special interests standing in the way. If you see someone opposed to something like energy efficiency, they are probably hanging onto an industry that has seen its day.

AC: Some industry groups such as automotive spend 16 times more on lobbying than environmental groups. How can individual citizens get their elected officials to hear them?

BR: Voters should be proponents of removing the politics from these issues. Find a way to politically neuter them. The ways to do that are to make the case to people who serve in Congress. Show them that this is good for the economy. Show them that everyone should be interested in job growth and this is the industry that can achieve that. What makes a difference to elected officials is a bottom-up strategy. We need more Americans to understand the virtues behind a clean-energy policy agenda and then go out and educate.

AC: Did being a missionary in Africa prepare you for leadership?

BR: Certainly three years as a missionary gave me a sense of how to lead. The most valuable thing was learning how to implement a vision. It’s one thing to know what you need to do. It’s another to implement it. As Stephen Covey said, begin with the end in mind. So when I became governor, I asked myself, "Where do I want to be in four years?" Along the way, we were successful in the first three years at getting some things done. Then we decided to reach again. That is a leadership lesson I learned in Africa.  Accomplishing your goal doesn’t mean you sit down. You keep aiming higher.

AC: What qualities should we cultivate to be effective change agents in our respective spheres of influence?

BR: First, have a vision. There’s a scripture that says, “A nation without vision will perish.” I believe this is true. What is out there 15 or 20 years from now that we should be thinking about? We need to answer that question for ourselves. Second, learn to alter people’s thinking about these issues. When I began, a lot of folks regarded this as a zero-sum game. We’ve been making the case ever since that this is right for the 21st century. Are there ways we can incorporate natural gas into a clean energy world? Yes. There might even exist a way to use coal as a clean burning resource. So, being able to alter people’s thinking and not be stuck in your own has helped. Third, mediate. We’ve mediated negotiations among stakeholders in a variety of ways. Clean air, clean jobs, natural gas, environmentalists and utilities — they’ve all had a place at the table.  

AC: Have these groups gained something by sitting down together?

BR: Of course. Being at the table means you have a voice.

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Speaking of a seat at the table, I first met Ritter during a panel discussion at the American Wind Energy Association’s 2010 annual conference in Dallas. Seated between him and award-winning documentary film director Michael Nash (and wondering how I got there), I seized the opportunity to ask them to share their experiences with me. Their willingness to do so demonstrates the commitment to education that today’s leaders need to be effective. 

“So where you do go from here?” I asked Ritter, who elected not to run for a second term. “I don’t know. I’ve had some interesting overtures, but I’ve made no definitive plans yet,” he told me. In this climate of political opportunism, Ritter looks like a modern-day Cincinnatus. Positioning Colorado, which in 2005 drew two-thirds of its energy from dirty coal, to reduce emissions by 30 percent by 2020, Ritter has achieved 10 times what the U.S. government pledged in the Copenhagen Accord. As a result, Colorado serves as a template for other states to surpass emissions targets pledged by most industrialized nations. Where others regarded inertia as an excuse not to act, Ritter saw an opportunity. That’s a strategy that could work for any of us.