The future of the Roan Plateau, which spans more than 70,000 acres near Rifle and Parachute, is a focal point in state and national debates about energy policy.

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The future of the Roan Plateau, which spans more than 70,000 acres near Rifle and Parachute, is a focal point in state and national debates about energy policy.

Mineral dollars spur debate

Western Slope lawmakers: Use exploration revenues locally

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Months after floating the idea with a colleague, and after criticism from some Western Slope lawmakers and fellow Republicans, state Rep. Al White of Winter Park is now distancing himself from a proposal to use mineral exploration revenues to help Colorado's ailing higher education system.

Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat, proposed earlier this year to divert some of Colorado's mineral revenues - in the form of severance tax and federal mineral-lease payments - toward higher education. Months later, White and state Sen. Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, suggested using revenues from drilling on the Roan Plateau, a pristine swath of more than 70,000 acres near Rifle and Parachute.

While some state Republican lawmakers see drilling atop the Roan as a way to generate millions of dollars for education and other areas, most Western Slope officials believe energy revenues should remain in the communities affected by energy development, for projects such as road repairs.

"The whole concept of these energy funds has been to go to the communities that are being impacted by this development," Routt County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said.

At a recent Club 20 forum in Grand Junction, state Sen. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs, insisted that the Western Slope resist any attempt to divert mineral revenues to education. Club 20 is an organization of Western Colorado government officials and other interests.

White said Thursday that responses similar to Stahoviak's and Taylor's impacted his decision to not propose legislation that would use mineral revenues for education.

"I'm not going to bring it forward," White said.

White said his and Penry's proposal was just one possible solution to what he described as a dire financial situation for higher education in Colorado.

"I'm not committed to it," White said. "But it's one option worth investigating."

A candidate for Taylor's state Senate seat in District 8, White has said he now spends much of his time in Hayden, where he is a homeowner and registered voter.

Local needs

White and Penry's proposal could end up a moot point, if Colorado's Democratic legislators in Washington succeed in inserting language to federal spending bills that would ban drilling on the Roan Plateau. But should drilling plans go forward, the state expects a windfall.

Stahoviak noted that a corresponding increase in impacts to local communities would accompany such a windfall.

"There's a substantial need for local governments to use these funds," Stahoviak said. "That's exactly what Rio Blanco and Garfield counties would tell you as well."

Ritter - an advocate for a cautious approach to energy exploration - said in June that the Bureau of Land Management has plans for about 40,000 more wells on federal land in Northwest Colorado during the next 15 years.

Former Steamboat Springs City Councilman Ken Brenner, a Democrat who will challenge White for the District 8 Senate seat, said there are many obstacles to drilling on the Roan Plateau, and agreed that tax and lease revenues should stay local.

White said he doesn't even think there is enough money in mineral revenues to solve the higher education problem after all local needs are met.

"I don't think there'd be enough," White said. "I think we need $100 million a year to solve the higher education issue. There's no way in hell you're going to get that from oil and gas."

'Total solution'

Although White has distanced himself from Roan proposals for higher education, he has shifted his focus toward amending the state's gaming laws. White hopes to allow for expanded hours and higher bet limits, with some of the resulting revenues earmarked for higher education.

"I'm looking for a total solution as opposed to a partial solution," White said.

If nothing is done, White said the state might reach a point where public schools are as expensive to attend as private ones.

"Having affordable access to higher education is important," White said. "We're one recession away from doing away with that entirely."

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