Dems Adapting to Shifting Energy & Land Politics

07/13/2007 09:20 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last week, I wrote a long post over at Working Assets exploring how Land Politics and Energy Politics are really changing out in the Rocky Mountain West. No longer is this region's politics an oil and gas monopoly. Other factors - and players - are emerging, many of which split apart the GOP's base coalition of business elites focused solely on the corporate bottom line and ideologically conservative common folk who care about things like privacy, landowner rights and outdoor recreation. And by the looks of things in this morning's papers, more and more Democratic politicians are beginning to understand the shifting political tectonics.

Here in Colorado, the Rocky Mountain News reports on Gov. Bill Ritter's (D) refusal to be bullied by Big Oil & Gas. Specifically, Ritter is using the power granted to him by Democrats in the legislature to strengthen the hand of conservationists and consumer advocates:

"Gov. Bill Ritter fundamentally reshaped oversight of Colorado's oil and gas industry Thursday, adding conservationists and an industry critic to the nine-member Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. The five appointments herald a less predictable era for an industry that enjoyed eight years under Gov. Bill Owens - a former oil and gas lobbyist - and a commission dominated by members with ties to industry. The new appointments follow passage in the legislature of House Bill 1341, a measure that dramatically altered the commission by raising the number of members from seven to nine and cutting the number of members with ties to oil and gas from five to three."

Interestingly (or, perhaps, predictably), Republican politicians are trotting out their old rhetoric. "It looks to me like we're going away from folks who have an inherent knowledge of the industry and moving toward people who have overt political agendas," said Rep. Greg Brophy (R-Wray), adding (of course) that one of Ritter's appointments was - gasp! - an "ultra-liberal."

The rhetoric shows little understanding that with oil companies raking in record profits and the West's landscape increasingly being encroached by energy exploration projects, the region's attitude toward unbridled energy development has becoming a bit more textured than simply "drill, drill drill." It also shows an inability to comprehend that in the wake of headline-grabbing corruption scandals in Washington, D.C., and a seemingly endless river of stories about Bush administration foxes raiding federal regulatory henhouses, folks are more interested in government regulators actually being regulators rather than rubber stamps.

In Montana, another energy producing Western state, both Democrats and at least a few Republicans have figured that last point out. My friend Chuck Johnson of the Billings Gazette updates us this morning on the ongoing battle by Australian conglomerate Babcock & Brown Infrastructure (BB&I) to take over the state's electricity infrastructure through a buyout of Northwestern Energy - a move that will likely mean significant rate increases for Montanans. The problem for the Aussies and the Big Energy lobbyists is a state agency known as the Democrat-led Public Service Commission - and Montana public opinion:

"The PSC voted 5-0 on May 22 to reject BBI's proposed $2.2 billion buyout of NorthWestern Energy out of a concern that Montana consumers could face higher rates and worse service. A Gazette State Poll in late June showed that Montana voters solidly supported the PSC decision to reject the deal by 62 percent to 22 percent, with 16 percent undecided."

In the face of this bipartisan vote, BB&I is now trying to revise its buyout offer and pressure the PSC to reverse its decision - an admission that the company initially tried to bilk consumers, and sees state regulatory proceedings as just the first part of some sort of negotiation, rather than a state government decision designed to protect consumers and backed up by the force of law.

Political observers should keep an eye on agencies like Colorado's newly revamped Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and Montana's Public Service Commission in these and the inevitable upcoming fights over Energy and Land Politics. As the region's population continues to grow and as energy policy becomes central in our national discourse, it is precisely these kinds of local regulators that will most closely reflect the changing political dynamics.

Cross-posted at Working Assets