Colorado Blazes Low-Emissions, High-Employment Energy Pathway

Colorado Blazes Low-Emissions, High-Employment Energy Pathway
AP Photo/Ed Andrieski, File

Donald Trump made political hay in Appalachian and industrial states by running as an ardent booster of coal. Yet what’s really powered America’s remarkable energy boom over the last decade is shale oil and natural gas, renewable solar and wind, clean-tech and energy efficiency.

Energy innovation, in short, is the key to creating more good jobs and lowering U.S. carbon emissions. But given the Trump administration’s animus toward energy technology funding and low-carbon approaches generally, much of the political leadership for America’s next energy revolution will have to come from states where Democrats are in charge.

Take Colorado, which is aggressively pursuing energy innovation across the full spectrum of fuels and technologies. Governor John Hickenlooper has crafted a pro-growth, low-emissions agenda that should be a model to other states and to national policymakers. It emphasizes shale gas, wind, solar, hydropower, efficiency and advanced technology in everything from zero emissions electric cars to home net electricity metering. 

Colorado voters approved the nation’s first Renewable Energy Standard, getting buy-in from citizens who are increasingly aware of the economic as well as environmental benefits of the clean energy revolution. Renewable energy production has burgeoned, growing from 1 percent in 2004 to more than 15 percent in 2014.  The state’s largest utility has committed to producing 30 percent of its power from clean sources within 3 years. 

The payoff in jobs has been significant with more than 62,000 clean energy jobs state-wide. Clean tech was the Denver area’s fastest growing industry in 2015, with the nine-county Northern CO region ranking 5th among the nation’s 50 largest metro areas for clean tech employment concentration in 2015.  And the region’s 21,600 clean tech direct employment jobs are high paying--with an average salary of over $76,000 a year  – showing that the clean energy revolution has a key role to play in rebuilding America’s middle class.

But Hickenlooper has also recognized that shale gas has an important role to play in Colorado’s balanced energy portfolio – as long as it’s produced responsibly. In 2014, he negotiated with citizens, industry, and environmentalists the nation’s first methane leak detection regulations, which became a template for rules at the national level. Data from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission shows that statewide oil production increased more than 21 percent in 2015, the year after Colorado adopted its methane and hydrocarbon rule.

Meanwhile the rule is expected to reduce emissions from gas development in the Front Range by 33 percent by the end of this year. Low emissions gas development is especially important because natural gas growth nationally has been a key factor in reducing overall emissions, since gas has half the CO2 emissions of coal, and because fast-ramping gas plants are uniquely adept at integrating with wind and solar when those resources are ramping down.

As Colorado pioneers ways to create more energy jobs while lowering greenhouse gas emissions, the Trump administration is headed in the opposite direction. The new White House budget would slash funding for clean energy technology by more than $3 billion, about 18 percent at the Department of Energy alone. This is a recipe for hobbling the United States in the global race for the world’s largest market – the $10 trillion market in advanced energy.  Indeed, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, located in Boulder, CO, which has been a lynchpin of the US energy technology innovation for decades, will face the severest cuts under the Trump proposal, unless Congress reverses his shortsightedness.

Trump’s penchant for fumbling at the goal line is especially striking on energy and climate issues. Under President Obama, the United States began to decarbonize its economy even as it experienced steady economic growth. American greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by more than 12 percent since 2007, even as the economy grew by more than 15 percent. Indeed, U.S. CO2 emissions fell by 3 percent in 2016 alone, according to the International Energy Agency.

Remarkably, this decoupling of economic growth from rising carbon emissions has been accomplished even amid an unprecedented boom in U.S. oil and gas production. America became the world’s largest producer of natural gas and oil in the Obama years, with oil production increasing a stunning 74 percent, and natural gas production growing 34 percent.

Yet renewable energy production grew even more rapidly in the same period, with wind and solar production in the United States more than tripling, primarily because the costs of wind and solar came down dramatically. Solar costs have fallen by more than 60 percent in just last five years, and wind energy costs are two-fifths lower today than when President Obama took office. 

Meanwhile, coal jobs have fallen from 180,000 in 1985 to fewer than 50,000 today. Solar energy alone already employs more than twice as many Americans as coal, and employment in the U.S. solar business is growing 12 times faster than the economy’s overall job creation.  Trump’s promise to “bring back” coal jobs rings hollow, since their loss is mainly due to automation and the new influx of cheap shale gas that his policies support.

Finally, as Democratic governors like Hickenlooper have shown, the clean energy economy is not only good economics, it is good politics.  Under pressure from ultra-green activists demanding fracking bans and keeping shale energy “in the ground,” Hillary Clinton missed an opportunity to more fully embrace the balanced, but high-employment course taken by Democrats like Obama and Hickenlooper.  Other Democrats should not make the same mistake going forward, but instead lead the country to creating millions more high-paying, clean energy jobs in the future.

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