DENVER, CO – Like many Western Slope Republicans, Craig Meis breathed a sigh of relief when Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter left office and John Hickenlooper replaced him.
Ritter fought traditional energy development in favor of his “New Energy Economy” based on solar and wind power. Hickenlooper, while a Democrat, was also a former geologist who had worked in the oil and gas industry. As the owner of several restaurants, he campaigned on the importance of a strong business climate to the Colorado economy.
“We were very optimistic when Gov. Hickenlooper came into office. We thought his technology background and also with his being a business owner, he would understand some of the problems we’re dealing with,” said Meis. “With Ritter, we knew we were fighting a very liberal governor. With Hickenlooper, we thought we had a more pragmatic governor.”
It turns out the Mesa County Commissioner was half-right about Hickenlooper. “He’s very understanding of the needs of the Front Range,” said Meis. “But not about the needs of the Western Slope.”
After taking a wait-and-see approach for the governor’s first year, Western Slope Republicans are calling on Hickenlooper to do more than talk about the importance of energy development. They want the governor to become a vigorous advocate for the struggling region and its industries in the face of an increasingly hostile federal administration and steadfast environmental opposition.
State Reps. Laura Bradford and Ray Scott fired the first missive in a Jan. 3 op-ed in The Denver Post, saying that Hickenlooper knows full well the economic plight of the state’s Western side but “hasn’t done one thing about it.”
Local lawmakers in Mesa and Garfield counties are now discussing how to prod the governor to become more active on addressing their issues.
“Our board is going to talk about reaching out to Hickenlooper, because I don’t know what his thought process is on this,” said Meis.
Despite President Obama’s call for a diverse energy portfolio, his administration has moved to tighten the rules on oil and gas development. At the same time, the environmental movement continues to challenge fossil-fuel projects on public lands. The combination has led to skyrocketing unemployment in West Slope counties that depend on the energy industry for jobs.
Instead of intervening on the state’s behalf, however, Hickenlooper has remained silent on several key fronts, including:
Oil shale: The Bureau of Land Management has proposed drastically reducing access to oil shale on public lands in its Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement. The agency’s preferred alternative would cut availability in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming from 2 million acres to less than 500,000 acres. The 90-day comment period ends May 4;
Roadless areas: The Forest Service reversed Feb. 13 a decision allowing the West Elk coal mine to expand into a roadless area near Somerset. The ruling came after an appeal filed by Earthjustice on behalf of four environmental groups, but the expansion could still be approved after questions on protections for wildlife and streams are addressed;
Roan Plateau: The BLM’s record-breaking 2008 lease auction has resulted in no drilling, thanks to a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice on behalf of 10 environmental groups. If the lawsuit prevails, the state could be on the hook to reimburse the BLM for as much as $60 million in mineral rights.
Economic EIS: In his 2011 State of the State address, Hickenlooper said he wanted legislation affecting businesses to include an economic impact statement. Republicans took him at his word by proposing two such bills this year, but Hickenlooper has declined to take a position on either. Senate Bill 80 died in committee on a party-line vote, while House Bill 1115 passed out of committee by one vote.
What’s frustrating to Western lawmakers is that when he does enter the fray, Hickenlooper can be an effective negotiator. One of the high points of his administration to date is the December deal struck with energy companies, state regulators and environmental groups on the disclosure of fracking fluid ingredients.
“[W]e mean to encourage the development of state resources to create jobs, but at the same time hold businesses accountable to the highest ethical and environmental standards,” said Hickenlooper in his 2012 State of the State speech.
But critics say the governor’s involvement has been limited to industry along the Front Range, where most property is privately owned. In Mesa County, where the federal government controls 72 percent of the land, Hickenlooper has deferred to the Obama administration.
“We expected a lot of activity on his part, especially on the Roan Plateau issue, but he seems to have the attitude that he shouldn’t get involved,” said Scott. “Well, other governors are getting involved, and it’s making a difference.”
He pointed to North Dakota, Utah and Wyoming as examples of states where intervention by the governor has helped ease barriers to energy development.
“It’s the federal layer that’s so difficult to get through,” said Scott. “That’s where the governor can come in and say, ‘Stand off.’ He’s the governor of the state. That’s his job.”
Whether Hickenlooper will decide it’s worth the political risk is another question. Even Democrats have criticized the governor for avoiding taking a stand on hot topics, but with his approval rating hovering near 60 percent, that’s not likely to change.
“He’s not going to get into this fight. What’s he’s doing is working just fine,” said Scott. “But I’m going to continue to bring proposals to him, bipartisan proposals, and say, ‘Let’s work together to show Western Colorado that you’re working for them.’”