Despite claims he badly mismanaged state energy projects, former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter is not only on the shortlist to replace outgoing Energy Secretary Steven Chu, but he was also in the running to take over the Interior Department when fellow Coloradoan Ken Salazar steps down.
Ritter mentioned that he was being considered as interior secretary Monday night before making remarks at the Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association conference.
He didn’t go into detail about why he was on what he called “a long shortlist” for the position, but he mentioned his experience as governor in dealing with energy development on public land as a possible factor.
“We were very involved in looking at BLM,” he said, referring to the Bureau of Land Management, “and the intersection between BLM and fossil fuel extraction. I know a lot about that issue, and oil shale and issues around oil shale extraction on public lands. … It commanded a lot of our time, so I’m very interested in the issue in general.”
“I actually think the big issue Interior is going to face is on gas and oil stuff,” he said.
Ritter would not say Monday which position he prefered, but the question may be moot. According to reports, President Obama will tap REI chief Sally Jewell for the Interior position.
“I think that the country would be lucky to have him in either position,” said Pam Kiely, a Denver energy consultant who works with environmental groups.”I think he would be an incredibly strong pick for Interior, but at the same time, he’s got a track record that put Colorado on the map in terms of developing and branding our state around alternative energy. … I think that would be an incredible asset at DOE.”
One of Ritter’s main legacies as governor is a package of legislation called “the new energy economy” that was meant to kickstart renewable energy initiatives.
But his administration has come under scathing criticism recently for its handling of new energy projects. A state audit of the Colorado Energy Office — which began focusing on renewable energy initiatives during Ritter’s tenure — showed that it could not account for how it spent $252 million in state and federal money since 2007.
The agency could not say how much its programs cost or how much money was spent on them. The audit concluded that because of poor accounting, the energy office could not show that any of its programs were cost effective.
In his brief comments Monday night, Ritter disputed the findings.
“The auditor in this case fell down on the job,” he said. “We were very careful with budgets.”
He said auditors should not have relied solely on the agency’s existing staff to provide documentation for projects that were initiated years ago by employees who have since left. He said that documents showing “in great detail” what was spent on various projects, as well as their outcomes, exist on the Internet and that there were “other avenues” for auditors to locate information.
“If the people there can’t give you documentation, then you should call the person who was the CEO, (former lawmaker and Ritter appointee) Tom Plant,” he said. “Eleven of the 12 program managers have moved on and they didn’t call a single one of those. They didn’t call the comptroller who kept the records. They didn’t call the deputy CEO or the CEO or any of those people. They relied strictly on the people who were in place after this massive turnover.”
“I feel very strongly about this,” he continued. “I think the auditor at the very least didn’t do what they should have, and quite frankly I think the administration should have contacted me or Tom Plant and we would have prepared the answers to these questions.”
Critics have seized on the audit as evidence that Ritter isn’t qualified to be energy secretary.
“If you want to talk about leadership on energy issues, look no further than the Colorado Energy Office,” said Colorado Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, who sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and who represents a district that’s heavily dependent on the oil and gas industry.
“It was devastating,” state Sen. Greg Brophy, who represents much of the same region, said of the audit. “I guess in light of what we learned from the way the Obama Administration gave away money to friends without accountability, it’s not surprising that Gov. Ritter would be considered to be added to that administration because it’s more of the same. There’s no accountability to how the money was spent out of the governor’s administration at all. The auditor was just scathing.”
Since leaving office in 2011, Ritter has headed the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University.
The center was custom-made for Ritter to take the ideas behind the new energy economy nationwide; he spends much of his time traveling to promote clean energy initiatives to communities around the country.
The center was first proposed by Joe Zimlich, one of Ritter’s appointees to the CSU Board of Governors. Zimlich is also the CEO of the Bohemian Companies, which manages billionaire Pat Stryker’s nonprofit Bohemian Foundation. Stryker is a heavyweight donor to Democratic candidates.
Ritter was the only person considered for the job, according to a campus newspaper article.
The center is privately funded, in part by groups that promote alternative energy like wind and solar over fossil fuel. Among them are the Energy Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Bohemian Foundation.
These private foundations also pay Ritter’s $300,000 annual salary.
Both Gardner and Brophy are worried about Ritter’s priorities, should he be appointed to a Cabinet position.
“He practically waged all-out war on the fossil fuel industry trying to pump up his new energy economy,” Brophy said. “There was really no balance in the Ritter administration. He was hostile to the traditional fossil fuel industries and didn’t seem to care what it cost the average person.”
Indeed, a new report examining the financial impact of New Energy Economy legislation shows that Xcel Energy customers paid $484 million last year complying with the state’s tough new renewable energy standards and other clean energy measures, an amount that comprised 18 percent of Xcel’s total electricity sales in 2012.
The maximum retail rate impact of the new standards is capped by law at 2 percent.
William Yeatman, an energy policy analyst who wrote the report for the Washington, D.C.-based Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Independence Institute in Colorado, called the findings “eye-popping.”
“That was kind of the most shocking part of the report,” he said. “We were confident that the New Energy Economy was going to cost far more than 2 percent, but we weren’t prepared for it to be nearly a half billion dollars.”
The report also found that the amount of energy generated under the new laws was less than Xcel’s surplus reserve.
“To put it another way,” the report states, “from a power market perspective, there was no need for the New Energy Economy, as the energy it yielded was superfluous.”
Part of the reason, Yeatman said, is because of low demand caused by the economic recession.
“If the economy overnight exploded and electricity demand went through the roof in Colorado, then one could say that the New Energy Economy contribution would help meet that demand,” he said. “The fact is, there is no real demand. We’re just adding superfluous energy, meaningless, needless energy for which there is no demand.”
Rep. Gardner said that the new energy secretary “ought to be somebody trying to figure out how to make abundant energy more affordable rather than trying to figure how to make abundant energy less abundant and more expensive.”
“I think Bill Ritter is a very good person,” Gardner said, “but I hesitate to think that the work he has done as the governor of Colorado would put him in a position to be leading the Department of Energy.”
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