Q&A with Tracee Bentley | From farm kid to energy advocate

Author: Dan Njegomir - August 6, 2018 - Updated: August 20, 2018

Tracee Bentley — oil and gas advocate, veteran lobbyist (Photo courtesy Tracee Bentley)

Tracee Bentley may have left Colorado’s countryside years ago to become a mover and shaker at the State Capitol in Denver, but you can’t take the country out of her.

Nowadays a leading voice for the state’s booming oil and gas industry — after carving out a rep as a hard-as-nails lobbyist and serving as a senior staffer in the administration of Gov. John Hickenlooper — Bentley is a San Luis Valley native and the offspring of a farm family.

And while she can’t make the trek from rural southern Colorado to her big-city job everyday, she does her best to replicate the lifestyle she hails from, making her home in pint-sized Severance in Weld County.

“I would rather commute every day than live in the city. My husband and I wanted to be sure our children were raised in much the same environment that I grew up in,” she tells us.

She also shares her views on working for the guv, oil and gas along the partisan divide, and the future of Colorado’s family farms — in today’s Q&A.

Colorado Politics: One stereotype of those who work in the oil and gas industry is that they aren’t tied to the land and don’t have a stake in its stewardship. You grew up not only tied to the land, but to land in Colorado — the historic San Luis Valley — where your family had a farm. How does that experience and heritage influence your perspective on your work advocating for the development of energy that’s under that land?

Tracee Bentley: Growing up in and around agriculture taught me to respect our natural resources to the highest degree. Our family depended upon the careful stewardship of our land for our livelihood, so yes, my upbringing had a profound effect on how I view the responsible use of our lands.

Now that I work in the energy industry, the exact same values and principles apply, and I can tell you firsthand that the oil and natural gas industry in Colorado puts a great deal of emphasis on environmental stewardship. The men and women who work in our industry deeply value the land, air and water resources that Colorado has to offer, as they are raising their families here, too.

Tracee Bentley

  • Executive director, Colorado Petroleum Council.
  • Legislative director, Gov. John Hickenlooper, 2013-2015.
  • Deputy director, Colorado Energy Office, 2011-2013.
  • Served as director of national affairs for the Colorado Farm Bureau.
  • Holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Colorado State University.

CP: You also are a Republican who has worked in two different posts for a Democratic governor. That means you bring yet another set of experiences to the oil and gas world — working with a party that by and large has become an adversary of fossil fuels. Gov. John Hickenlooper is of course a notable exception, having started out as a geologist in the industry itself, and you’ve praised his moderation on energy and other issues.

But where does your industry stand with Democrats overall in Colorado? They seem to be increasingly embracing the views of the more outspoken elements in the environmental movement. Meanwhile, the debate over issues like fracking and drilling setbacks isn’t going away. Will you be able to continue finding workable compromises with Democrats over energy legislation in a split legislature? And what if the Democrats take the Senate this fall?

Bentley: Energy should not be a partisan issue. When we are able to have serious discussions about the state of Colorado energy, the economy, and meeting the needs of Coloradans, it is clear that the role of the oil and natural gas industry is vital to the state in so many ways. We released a detailed report on the industry earlier this summer that speaks to this. The majority of our elected officials, on both sides of the aisle, largely understand and agree.

While we do see a vocal minority speak out against traditional energy and do everything they can to ban development, I truly believe that this is not the consensus of lawmakers in the Democratic Party. This dissent appears to be a few overzealous voices leading the conversation, and, unfortunately, they have made the issue extremely polarizing. This past legislative session, we worked with both sides of the aisle to pass legislation that strengthened natural gas and oil regulations, while simultaneously ensuring that energy development – and with it, Colorado’s economy – can continue to flourish.

CP: Tell us a little about the role oil and gas development plays in Colorado’s economy.

Bentley: The oil and natural gas industry in Colorado supports over 232,000 jobs and contributes $31.4 billion to the state’s economy. That figure doesn’t account for the hundreds of thousands of dollars that individual operators within the state spend on philanthropic and charitable causes. The industry pays ad valorem taxes at three times the rate over commercial property, and over 10 times the rate of residential property.

Over $430 million per year in property taxes goes to Colorado counties, cities and school districts, of which $220 million goes directly to school districts. The state of Colorado receives about $52 million per year in state leasing revenue and over $100 million from state royalties. This funding goes towards public safety, general government operations, health and human services, and public works, to name just a few.

CP: Before serving with the Hickenlooper administration, you already were a seasoned lobbyist at the Capitol. How has the profession changed over the years and especially now, in the #MeToo era?

Bentley: While I no longer play a role in day-to-day lobbying, it does appear that civil and productive conversations have become rarer in recent years. The broader debate on oil and natural gas is a good example of this. Civil and respectful discourse at the Capitol is a prerequisite to maintaining the trust and respect of those we represent. I would like to see us get back to a place where we can respectfully disagree and truly listen to both sides of the issues of the day.

While we do see a vocal minority speak out against traditional energy and do everything they can to ban development, I truly believe that this is not the consensus of lawmakers in the Democratic Party.

CP: You’ve also advocated extensively for agriculture earlier in your career, including a stint with the Colorado Farm Bureau. What is the biggest threat facing the family farm in Colorado? What is the biggest threat to Colorado agriculture in general — and what can be done about it?

Bentley: Colorado’s farmers and ranchers provide safe, affordable, and abundant food, not only for our state, but for the nation and beyond. Many of our farmers and ranchers are reaching an age where they are ready to pass the torch, but there is no one to pass it to because younger generations are not returning home to take over. This is largely due to the lack of long-term opportunities in a number of areas. Access to education, health care and additional financial opportunities have to be a priority for agriculture to continue to prosper.

The other pressing issue, of course, is water. Water is the lifeblood of our state and we simply don’t have enough of it. We are only one of two states in the county that solely depend on the precipitation that falls from the sky, so until we put politics aside and start effectively storing water, I fear more and more farmers and ranchers will be forced to either downsize or stop producing.

CP: The Trump administration has come out with guns blazing on foreign trade in the past few months, posing a trade war with China among other countries. Some say that war already is underway. What impact does that stand to have on Colorado farming and ranching as our ag economy looks to expand exports into overseas markets?

Bentley: As the Trump administration moves forward with implementing its policies on foreign trade, there needs to be a thoughtful discussion on how to ensure there are not unintended consequences to industries at home that depend on imports and exports. The agriculture industry in Colorado is oversupplied for domestic markets, so exporting to new global markets makes perfect sense and is the logical next step for Colorado farmers and ranchers.

If foreign trade becomes too difficult, the Colorado agricultural community will lose access to international markets. This, of course, means lower prices and smaller, if any, profits for producers. Such an outcome would be a direct hit to our Colorado farmers and ranchers’ livelihood, and to the prosperity of rural Colorado.

CP: When you retire — if you ever do — would you consider a return to farm life, or are you likely to remain a city slicker from here on out?

Bentley: It’s funny you should mention that, because even though I don’t live on my family farm, I am far from a city slicker! I currently live in the heart of oil and natural gas country, in a little town in Weld County called Severance. I commute to Denver for work every day because my family values the quality of life we have in rural Colorado. Frankly, I would rather commute every day than live in the city. My husband and I wanted to be sure our children were raised in much the same environment that I grew up in. My heart will always belong to rural Colorado, and I’ll never give that up.

Dan Njegomir

Dan Njegomir

Dan Njegomir is the opinion editor for Colorado Politics. A longtime journalist and more-than-25-year veteran of the Colorado political scene, Njegomir has been an award-winning newspaper reporter, an editorial page editor, a senior legislative staffer at the State Capitol and a political consultant.