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.