DENVER, CO—Any doubts about the existence of a schism between the green movement and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper were erased last week when he starred in an energy industry-sponsored ad.
In the radio spot, the Democratic governor touts the safety record of hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, a drilling technique that has revolutionized natural gas production–and ignited a heated debate on whether the process is contaminating ground water.
The governor made his position on the issue clear. Since 2008, “we have had not one instance of groundwater contamination associated with drilling and hydraulic fracturing,” he says in the ad.
Until now, fracking opponents had kept their nagging concerns about the governor’s comparatively pro-development tilt to themselves. Once the Hickenlooper spot trumpeting the benefits of fracking hit Colorado radio stations, however, the honeymoon was officially over.
A coalition of 13 environmental groups quickly fired off a letter to the governor urging him to pull the public-service announcement, which was sponsored by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, the green movement’s chief nemesis.
“The COGA ad leaves Coloradans with an inaccurate picture of the consequences of oil and gas drilling operations,” said the letter. “While citizens should know how much progress we have made in adopting health and safety protections, they should also feel confident that the state recognizes and is working to minimize the inevitable impact of oil and gas development.”
The coalition then recommended that “a good first step toward building that confidence is to withdraw the COGA ad and to direct the oil and gas commission to adopt new and stronger protections for Colorado’s water resources and communities, including increased mandatory setbacks of oil and gas wells from rivers and streams, and from homes.”
As of Wednesday, however, the ad was still airing. COGA president Tisha Schuller said she had received no instructions from the governor to yank the spot. Meanwhile, she said, response to the ad has been “overwhelmingly positive.”
At a time when environmental NGOs represent a fundamental cog in the Democratic Party machine, Hickenlooper’s version of “drill, baby, drill” sets him apart from other top Democrats. His stance appears especially stark following the “New Energy Economy” declared by his predecessor, former Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter, who pushed an aggressive environmental agenda during his one term.
“When you look at Hickenlooper, his brand of pragmatism is pretty rare in the Democratic Party,” said David Ludlam, COGA West Slope president. “He’s proven to be a truly thoughtful pragmatist as relates to our sector.”
He comes by his pro-industry slant honestly: Before he started brewing beer for a living, Hickenlooper worked as a geologist in the oil and gas business. His support for fracking is nothing new—in August, he called stories about dangers associated with the process “hyperbole” at an energy-industry conference.
At the same time, political tea-leaf readers say the signs point to a governor who’s positioning himself for a run for higher office as a moderate problem-solver. Speculation that Hickenlooper may run for president in 2016 is rampant, even though he has said he has no plans beyond serving as Colorado governor.
“This is a real departure for a Democrat,” said one Republican insider. “But he’s convinced that in order to be post-partisan, he needs to get along with Democrats and Republicans. At a time when everyone is polarized, he could say, ‘I’m the one guy who can work with both sides,’ like you see with Mitt Romney.”
Hickenlooper can also afford to hold environmental groups at arms’ length because he doesn’t owe his success to them. Unlike Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, who won a tight 2010 race with the help of the green movement’s get-out-the-vote effort, Hickenlooper coasted to victory in the wake of a Republican Party crack-up that left conservatives divided between two candidates.
While his pro-fracking stand may annoy environmentalists, that may be outweighed by the benefits associated with booming natural-gas development. A robust energy sector could help Hickenlooper eliminate the biggest headache of his administration, namely, the chronic fiscal crisis. With state government facing another round of cuts and no public appetite for tax increases, a boost in severance tax revenues from oil and natural gas drilling could hardly come at a better time.
Hickenlooper has been faulted for failing to take sides on tough issues, but even his critics would agree he’s shown leadership on the natural-gas front. He launched an effort to convert the state’s vehicle fleet to natural gas, and he negotiated a deft compromise between environmentalists and industry on disclosing chemicals used in fracking. Both have become models for other states.
In other words, he’s probably never going to chain himself to an oil rig. While he may not be what they expected, environmentalists clearly want to stay on his good side. Despite the request to pull the ad, the letter praised Hickenlooper for his work on the disclosure rules and struck a tone that was respectful, not combative.
When they learned of the ad, coalition members said they were “surprised and disappointed.” They may continue to be disappointed by the Colorado governor on the fracking issue, but after this, it’s unlikely that they’ll be surprised.