When U.S. Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., voted against the American Clean Energy Security Act that recently, and narrowly, passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, he surprised some of his constituents, including fellow Democrats and environmental activists.
The bill, which among other provisions, would set up a "cap and trade program" for utilities to buy and sell "allowances" or "credits" to offset CO-2 emissions, has been roundly criticized by the power industry. It was approved by the house on June 26 by a vote of 219-212, and now goes to the Senate.
Salazar, who represents the 3rd Congressional District, which includes much of the Western Slope, was the only Colorado Democrat who voted against the bill. He did so based on his belief that "this bill places a disproportionate [financial] burden on the backs of my constituents," according to a statement issued by Salazar's office.
"I simply don't buy his reasons," said Rifle attorney Ed Sands, chair of the Garfield County Democratic Party. "I mean, it will be 10 years before the caps are fully effective. Who knows where the economy will be in 10 years? I think we [Democrats] believe it's very important, landmark legislation, to turn around the direction this country's been going in" regarding global warming and energy consumption.
Eric Wortman, a spokesman for Salazar, wrote in an e-mail to the Post Independent, "The CBO [Congressional Budget Office] estimate that folks like to use - $165 annual per household is a national average. Some areas of the country fall under that, some over, and a rural district like Colorado's 3rd would be on the high end. Rural electric associations (REAs) provide most of the electricity in the 3rd - and estimates vary widely depending on where one lives but the low end of expected increases we saw in the district was $330 and up to a couple thousand annually."
Salazar's critics were quick to lump him in with the Republican minority in the vote tally.
"We applaud the Colorado representatives who voted for this critical legislation," stated a release from Environment Colorado's legislative director, Pam Kiely, "yet we are disappointed with Representatives Salazar, Coffman and Lamborn."
Reps. Mike Coffman and Doug Lamborn are Republicans, while Colorado Democrats Diana DeGette, Betsy Markey, Jared Polis and Ed Perlmutter voted for the bill.
"He had nothing to lose by supporting it," said longtime Democratic activist Leslie Robinson of Rifle, maintaining that Salazar's job was not on the line with this vote. "It just doesn't make sense for him to vote that way, and make his base upset."
Salazar, in the statement from his office, said, "While I strongly agree the issue of climate change must be addressed" and that "I have always been a strong proponent of creating green jobs and investing in renewable energy."
He referred to "a number of steps that would have lessened the burden on my constituents," such as lag times in requiring REAs to comply with the act, and "a strong investment in clean coal technology and nuclear power," which were not part of the act.
Ray Clifton, executive director of Colorado Rural Electric Associations, said the bill's system of forcing utilities to buy "allowances" or credits for C0-2 emissions would end up costing the REAs in the 3rd District "around $50 million, and that has to be passed along somehow." Clifton, speaking from a car driving through Texas, said of the figures Salazar was citing, "I'm not sure about that. Everybody's got a set of numbers."
Salazar's vote reflects a growing confidence among Republicans that the "science of man-made global warming" is coming under increasingly skeptical review by moderate Democrats, according to an opinion piece in the June 29 Wall Street Journal by writer Kimberley Strassel.
Writing before the Clean Energy Security Act narrowly passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, Strassel predicted, "If Speaker Nancy Pelosi fails to push through her bill, it will be because rural and Blue Dog Democrats fret about the economic ramifications."
Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, called Salazar's vote "mysterious, given how reliant [the 3rd Congressional District] is on a natural-resources-based economy."
Shoemaker argued fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas are bound to give out at some point, but that the rest of the Western Slope's economy relies heavily on healthy rivers, consistent snow, wildlife habitat and other resources he said are threatened by global warming.
"To ignore that and fail to take action on global warming is pretty mysterious," Shoemaker said. "I'm just afraid that Congressman Salazar listened to a very vocal minority that organized well," referring to stories of a barrage of what he termed "robo-calls" that overwhelmed Salazar's phones.
Wortman conceded that "there were a lot of calls ... on both sides of the issue ... probably a few thousand, with 75 percent opposed."
"Obviously the congressman represents a pretty broad district," said Matt Hamilton, a spokesman for the Aspen Skiing Co., which backed the bill, adding, "We're definitely disappointed he chose not to support the bill."
Hamilton said he and Skico CEO Mike Kaplan went to Washington, D.C., to lobby for the bill, but were unable to get any time with Salazar himself.