Guest Columns

MEIS: NATURAL TREASURES LIE BENEATH THE GROUND AS WELL AS ABOVE

Mesa County’s Energy Master Plan protects environment, promotes economic well-being

GUEST COLUMNIST

The natural beauty of Western Colorado is unique. It offers an unequaled experience for visitors and locals alike.

Another treasure lies beneath the surface of this diverse and rugged region. The natural resources of coal, oil shale, and natural gas, offer strength to the economic vitality of the area. Energy development in Mesa County, Colorado has the potential to enrich, stabilize, and diversify the regional economy in countless ways.

This potential was evidenced in 2005 when Mesa County enjoyed a mini-energy boom. However, along with jobs and revenue came other local conditions for which the county was ill-prepared, such as housing shortages, large influxes of students into local schools, and increased traffic on surface streets and highways.

Local governments already have master plans for community development, so it only made sense that during this boom, Mesa County addressed these issues by drafting an ‘Energy Master Plan.’

Although changes in the national economy and environmental regulations have since dampened the growth in energy development, Mesa County’s resources are still under the ground, waiting to be extracted, and the Energy Master Plan provides the blueprint for development that will protect the environment and promote the economic well-being of citizens.

The constitutional role of the county — as enumerated in Colorado and many other states — in the extraction of energy resources serves as a statutory basis for the Energy Master Plan.

Environmental considerations such as drilling in and near watersheds are addressed. Zoning and property issues are examined as well. The relationships between the county and federal agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — which can have a significant impact on the development of natural resources — also play an important role in the composition of the Energy Master Plan.

Mesa County’s ‘Energy Master Plan’ was the first of its kind in the nation, and is formulated on principles and ideas that are not limited to any particular time period or set of circumstances. It was devised with several objectives in mind:

• To identify and develop abundant natural resources
• To protect the environment during the exploration and development process
• To create jobs
• To encourage and participate in economic development
• To invest in necessary infrastructure
• To support local businesses
• To encourage development of adequate housing to address the impact of population growth
• To communicate all aspects of the energy development life cycle.

This plan outlines how these objectives can be achieved concurrently and in a way that fosters the short and long-term viability of the county. These qualities are what makes Mesa County’s Energy Master Plan a model that can be easily adopted by other counties and locales across the United States. Its practical functions are adaptable to all forms of energy in varying regions which have diverse local conditions. This approach includes several steps:

Resource and Sensitivities Inventory
This initial step identifies the locations and forms of energy resources within the planning area. Potential environmental sensitivities are also investigated in this step.

Online Mapping Tool
In this step, resources and environmental sensitivities which have previously been identified, are charted using GIS technology and an online mapping tool. This interactive tool can be used by land owners, lease holders, or other interested parties to determine how a particular parcel of land may be effected by wildlife corridors, watersheds, or other environmental considerations. This also provides an instrument that energy companies can employ as they create their development plans.

Mitigation Measures
Mitigation measures, or ‘best practices,’ is the planning step that will isolate identified sensitivities and offer suggestions to land owners and lease holders about how they may address the possible impact of resource development in a specific area. The online mapping tool will facilitate this phase of planning.

Policy Analysis
Analysis of existing policies occurs concurrently with the development of the mitigation measures. This identifies outdated policies that impede development and gaps in existing policies that may obscure and confuse energy issues. This step will further the advocacy of policies that are beneficial to energy development, environmental concerns, and the economy.

Public Input
Public input is critical to an effective Energy Master Plan. Informal, open meetings enables citizens and business owners to review and discuss the steps being taken in local energy development. A final, formal public review, which includes county commissioners and/or the city council, follows the series of open meetings. The Energy Master Plan is considered for adoption only after the public has been properly engaged in the process.

The development and implementation of an Energy Master Plan is a process which ensures that policy decisions are based on real science and the actual economic and environmental impact on a particular region.

The Energy Master Plan recognizes the role of government and the rights of the people when it comes to the sometimes volatile issues surrounding the development of America’s natural resources. This plan is a model that can benefit every city, county, and region in the United States whose natural treasures lie beneath the ground as well as above.

Craig Meis, PE, is a chemical engineer with over twenty years experience in the field of environmental compliance, and eight years as a county commissioner in Mesa County.

***
For more information about developing an energy master plan, join your colleagues for the Energy and Environment Symposium, May 15-16, 2013, at Colorado Mesa University, in Grand Junction, Colorado, where we will explore the complexities of an ever-changing, technology-driven energy sector, and the roles and responsibilities of local elected officials. www.ColoradoMesa.edu/LocalGovernment