On the one hand, Udall had high praise for oil-and-gas development and even agreed that fracking “can be done safely.” On the other hand, he avoided taking a position on Rep. Jared Polis’s proposed anti-fracking initiatives and suggested that the industry doesn’t have much of a future in Colorado.
“Natural gas, oil and coal make up a huge percentage of our energy portfolio in Colorado and across the nation,” said Udall. “No matter how aggressively we pursue renewables and energy efficiency, that’s not going to change in the near term.”
What happens after the “near term”? Udall didn’t elaborate, but Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz reminded those in attendance that the Obama administration is committed to slashing fossil-fuel emissions in the name of climate change.
“Why we are committed in the first place to this reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions goes to what probably many in this room understand very, very well: the mitigation of the risk that we have from global warming and climate change,” said Moniz.
The challenge for Udall is keeping one foot firmly planted in the climate-change camp while staying upbeat about oil, coal and natural gas production, preferably through the Nov. 4 election. It won’t be easy: So far no other vulnerable Senate Democratic incumbent is even trying to pull it off.
Democrats like Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas have come out squarely in favor of oil and gas production while avoiding high-profile events like February’s Senate all-night talkfest on climate change.
Not only did Udall participate in the all-nighter, he’s also one of just two Senate Democratic incumbents to receive the backing of San Francisco billionaire Tom Steyer, who says he plans to spend $100 million to raise the profile of the climate-change issue during the 2014 campaign.
At Friday’s forum, Udall pointed to climate change as the culprit behind the state’s recent disastrous wildfires.
“Clearly the wildfire season and the intensity of wildfires is an example of climate change . . . It’s all the more urgent when we watch what’s happened here to embrace the administration’s efforts to lower carbon emissions,” said Udall.
In other words, being the global-warming guy is a good fit for Udall. The problem is that climate change is increasingly looking like a loser in states like Colorado, where oil and natural gas are booming and a growing number of voters depend on the industry for their livelihood.
Hence Udall’s praise for fossil fuels at Friday’s forum, where he said his recent visit to a natural-gas processing plant “was a reminder that oil and gas development is vital for our economy.”
He also gave a cautious shout-out to hydraulic fracturing, the extraction process under attack by local and national environmental groups.
“Hydraulic fracturing is an industrial activity. It has risks. It can be done safely. It must be done safely,” said Udall. “One well contaminated or one person made sick is one too many. Having said that, there literally have been hundreds of thousands of hydraulic fracturing operations all over the country.”
Does that mean he opposes Polis’s anti-fracking push? Not exactly. While Udall hasn’t lined up with Gov. John Hickenlooper and other top Democrats in supporting the oil and gas industry, he also hasn’t condemned Polis.
Instead, Udall is assuming the role of impartial adviser. At the forum, he unveiled his energy plan—six principles such as “protect and prosper” and “a diverse energy portfolio”–that he said would show how “our state’s collaborative approach to energy development and innovation can be a model for the country.”
“We sit down and hew to the principles that are in this Colorado energy plan, I’m confident we can find the right balance,” said Udall.
Colorado’s “collaborative approach” has yielded some examples of community compromise, but it hasn’t stopped the half-dozen anti-fracking votes at the local level and corresponding slew of lawsuits, not to mention the looming statewide ballot war between Polis and Hickenlooper.
So far Udall has proven deft at straddling the issue, but Republican strategist Dick Wadhams says he doubts the senator can keep it up for the next six months.
“Keystone XL is a little bit easier for him to sidestep because it doesn’t run through Colorado,” said Wadhams. “But fracking is definitely a Colorado issue. If he doesn’t take a position, it will be in some ways even worse than outright supporting the anti-fracking measures, because it will show that he’s at best indecisive but at worst just without any character.”