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A Conversation with Bruce Driver about WRA’s Beginnings and Successes

Western Resource Advocates staff recently sat down with Bruce Driver and asked him for his recollections about WRA over its 30 years. Driver founded WRA’s Clean Energy Program as well as its Water Program, back when WRA was called the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies. He later served as WRA’s executive director from 1999 to 2004, and he still does consulting work on occasion for WRA’s Clean Energy Program. The following was edited for length.


How did you first hear about the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies (as WRA was then called), and what made you want to start working for the organization?

I moved to Colorado in 1985. Kelley Green became one of my friends, and she conceived of this organization in the late 1980s (in 1989, as the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies). She asked me if I would, on a contract basis, start an energy program. I agreed.… It was a part-time deal.… I started it in 1990, with a guy named Steve Pomeranz, but Steve kind of dropped out of it quickly. I was left with it there. It was me and a lawyer we had hired, Eric Blank.

We heard that the idea for the Clean Energy Program was first discussed on a ski lift in Colorado. That’s appropriate for a program designed to fight climate change – is it true?

There is a true story about how the Energy Program was conceived. I was skiing with a man named Ron Lehr [and Kelley Green]. That’s maybe where the Energy Program was conceived, because we talked about it then…

Ron Lehr had been a public utilities commissioner for Colorado and was the chair of the commission during the 1980s. He said something like, there hasn’t been an environmental advocate to the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), and he had a lonely role to play as the chair of the commission during those years.

I had had a background in litigating utility cases before public utility commissions all over the United States when I was with the Energy Department in D.C. 40 years ago. I was a lawyer on a subcommittee of the House, so I had a pretty strong background in this area. Then I moved out here in 1985, and I didn’t do any of that work at all. I worked as the scholar in residence for the Western Governors Association. I became a water lawyer overnight and represented environmental groups in water court, but no utility regulation work. On this ski trip I took, they discovered that I had had a pretty strong background in utilities.

We talked about the need to create an environmental advocate for the PUC. I started contract work with Kelley, and we hired a lawyer. We started to intervene before the Colorado Public Utilities Commission in what we thought were important cases where we could change the way the big utility, which is now called Xcel Energy, was regulated.

We chose places to advance things like consideration of energy efficiency, so-called demand-side sources as alternatives to big power plants, and ways that the commission could take account of the environment in its regulation. And that evolved.

The Colorado commission had some pretty good commissioners on it. There had been Democratic governors like Dick Lamm. He was the governor of Colorado for three terms. By then, the commission had some fairly progressive people on it, and we were able to make some real headway. It was surprising to the utility.

We started to win some cases or pieces of cases. We brought in a lot of experts to testify. The PUC held a big hearing on resource planning, and we brought in people to testify about climate change, even back then. We had some trouble litigating that issue. But we were able to do some other things, and we hired another person or two.

By 1993, we were really going strong. We started to consider intervening before PUCs in some other Western states. Don’t forget that at that time, in the early 1990s, we were really small. We didn’t have a water program. Kelley was particularly interested in public lands controls and things like that. We were an organization of eight people, total….

[Driver later became executive director, and held the position from 1999-2004]

We had been able to hire some other people through a big grant from the Hewlett Foundation and also the Energy Foundation. By then, we were in six or seven states. We had written big reports on what the West needed to do in order to clean itself up as far as utilities were concerned. The foundations seemed to think that that meant we had some more heft….

I, having been a water lawyer for part of my time when I had been out here since the mid-1980s, thought we should have a water program. So I started that. I hired Bart (Miller) to run that.

We grew, and we had a lot of success in the energy area. We started to win these cases because the PUCs were changing. We provided technical and legal help to groups all over the West…. We were really strong in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah.

I stayed as executive director for five years…. Since then, I have remained a consultant to WRA, and I still am. I just did a bunch of work for John Nielsen (director of WRA’s Clean Energy Program). I wish I could take credit for hiring him. But I didn’t.

What made you want to stay involved with WRA through the years?

I’ve been an environmental advocate of one kind or another my whole life, from when I was in Washington, D.C., where I started after law school… I got tired of working in Washington, D.C., but I had found things to do in the Energy Department. I was counsel to two subcommittees back there. The first one was in the House, for the Republicans, who were as good or better at the environmental issues than the Democrats. Now, of course, the Republicans have ceded the environment completely to them…

When I came out here, I adopted those ideas before I became part of the Law Fund. I had been representing environmental organizations in water cases.… But I was in the Energy Department for six years, and that’s where I learned how to litigate before PUCs.… We appeared before PUCs to advocate for changes in electric rates so that solar was promoted, even back then.…

Why did you choose the Law Fund, rather than some other environmental organization?

I think it was because of my friendship with Kelley. Kelley and I had a house out in Crested Butte, so our paths would cross out there. I still do have one there. I was building an environmental law practice out here, anyway. It seemed to be a good move to go over to the Law Fund with her and help her get it going. And that’s essentially what I did.

Is there anything in particular that stands out about the people who you have worked with at WRA?

My idea, when I was executive director, but even before that, when I was working for Kelley in the 1990s, was that we needed to hire people who would stay with the organization and grow and become just as top as the utility lawyers or the water lawyers and who would develop the expertise and the skills to go head to head with them. Certainly, Bart and John have done that. They’re both highly intelligent, and really good advocates.

In the end, John is the best advocate on this energy stuff who exists in the interior West. I would say he’s one of the best in the country…. He’s really good with people. He’s really smart, and really knows this field well. And he has stuck with it, which is the cool thing about it.

Bart’s the same way, in water. He has learned it and has learned how to deal with people in the water field.… Water and energy, early on, in my mind, were the ways to make us distinctive, and that has worked out.

As you look back over the years, is there one victory or success that stands out in your mind?

I’m much closer to the energy program….  I would say that the impact the Energy Program has had on electric utilities throughout the interior West is the thing I would crow about the most. We’ve been part of a coalition led by us that has resulted in the retirement of many coal-fired power plants and the implementation of renewable energy standards not only in this state, but all over the West.

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