Natural Gas and America's Clean Energy Future

Events every day in every corner of the world remind us that America's economic future and our ability to compete globally demand that we wake up to this reality: we must produce and consume energy in a fundamentally different way than ever before. President Obama's call in the State of the Union address for a new goal that 80 percent of our electricity must come from clean energy sources by 2035 is absolutely achievable, but not without changes in policy, in our habits, in our very way of thinking about energy.

The stakes are high with increasing pressure to spark economic growth, wean the U.S. off its dependence on foreign oil, and comply with federal air quality standards. As Washington debates a path forward, the states are where we should be looking for viable solutions. From energy independence, to clean air to job creation, we are tackling some of our nation's toughest challenges in Colorado. And, we can do it in other states, as well.

As a candidate for Governor in 2006, I argued that the future of Colorado's economy was building wind farms in wheat fields, a symbol of the need to change our energy mindset. As Governor, I worked determinedly to create a "new energy economy" because I believed that we could create good jobs for the future, foster our research and development in our universities and in the private sector, clean up our environment, and help wean our country from dangerous dependence on oil produced by countries that are often hostile to our best interests.

That's why I pushed successfully for a 30% renewable energy standard in Colorado, the 2nd highest in the nation. It's why I signed 57 different pieces of legislation in 4 years related to clean energy, including tax credits and other incentives. It's why I tirelessly marketed Colorado as a place where solar and wind and other renewable energy companies can thrive; countless new clean energy companies from Vestas Wind to Abound Solar now call Colorado home.

It is also why I'm such a strong advocate for the important role natural gas must play in America's clean energy future. Colorado is blessed with abundant gas reserves. Its production has been a critical part of our economy for years, providing good jobs and economic opportunities throughout our state. It's the cleanest-burning fossil fuel, emitting far less carbon and other dangerous pollutants than coal. This fact was recognized by Congress in 2009 when it switched the U.S. Capitol Power Plant from coal to natural gas and created a clean precedence for all of America to follow. This long-term commitment to reducing the Hill's carbon footprint marked the end of D.C.'s last coal burning facility.

Natural gas production is not without controversy, and among my proudest accomplishments as Governor was implementing reforms to the regulations and oversight of oil and gas production. I tangled with the industry, insisting that tighter rules were needed to protect air, water, wildlife and community values, all the while knowing that production and protection can co-exist.

In fact, it must exist if we are serious about achieving our national clean energy goals. In the wake of the rules' fight in Colorado, working with natural gas companies, utilities, conservationists, local leaders and others, we passed bipartisan legislation to increase jobs, decrease air pollution, spur natural gas production and protect utility rate-payers.

The "Clean Air Clean Jobs Act" that I signed in 2010 establishes a process for converting aging inefficient coal-fired power plants to cleaner burning natural gas. It's an innovative, bipartisan solution, achieved by creating a new, diverse coalition of Coloradans committed to economic growth and opportunity, and the protection of public health and the air we breathe.

It's a responsible model for other states to consider.

Natural gas has many applications, for utilities, transportation and other energy needs. It can and must be a major part of our energy future -- along with wind, solar, biofuels, clean coal, nuclear, energy efficiency measures, and other technologies. Natural gas development is a part of doing what we know we must do: transition to a clean energy economy for the 21st century.

Bill Ritter, Jr., was Governor of Colorado from 2007 to 2011, and currently directs the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University.