Like his political career in Colorado, John Hickenlooper’s entrance onto the national stage has been . . . well . . . odd.
His first nationally televised town hall as a Democratic presidential candidate made headlines for a story about taking his mom to a famous porn movie back in the day and wondering why female candidates for president aren’t being asked to commit to adding a man to the ticket.
His bare-bones campaign website is heavy on solicitations for money and light on policy positions. In fact, as of this writing, there’s no mention of a policy platform at all unless you count a quote urging that “. . . we stand tall for all we believe in and stand up against all that divides us . . .” It does have a store, however, with Hickenlooper 2020 buttons, tote bags, T-shirts and caps in stock and ready to ship.
Perhaps it occurred to someone in the campaign that Hick’s affable personality might not be enough to break out from a chorus line of candidates now numbering somewhere in the teens. In any case, he broke through last week with his first foray into policy.
In an op-ed published in the Washington Post, Hickenlooper criticized the Green New Deal resolution sponsored in Congress by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts.
It’s a soft target, with apparent throwaway lines unrelated to green energy calling for universal employment and housing. Even its backers call it an “aspirational” document with no chance of passage in the current Congress. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to embarrass Democrats into voting for it last week. Fifty-seven senators voted “no.” The other 43, including Markey, voted “present.”
So taking it down was easy, and Hickenlooper’s op-ed did a competent job, casting an ideological line to the private sector and calling for a more pragmatic approach to fighting climate change.
But here’s the odd part: In an 824-word essay on the nation’s energy policy, Hickenlooper buried the energy issue for which he was best known as Colorado governor. And I don’t mean he mentioned it too far down in the piece. I mean he never mentioned it. The word “fracking” does not appear in his energy policy opus.
Huh. It’s almost as if the former oil industry geologist knows that his alliance with that industry as governor won’t play well on the national stage. At least, not among Democratic Party voters.
But the ties are hard to hide. In addition to blocking reforms and paying tribute to innovations in fracking while in office, two of his top advisors went on to represent the industry. Tracee Bentley, Hickenlooper’s legislative director and a senior adviser on energy and agriculture, left his office in 2015 to become the first executive director of the Colorado Petroleum Council.
The Colorado Sun reported last week that Doug Friednash, Hickenlooper’s chief of staff from 2015-17, registered to lobby for the American Petroleum Institute the day Senate Bill 181 — which would enact reforms that Hickenlooper blocked — was introduced.
Hickenlooper offered no hint of any of this in the Washington Post op-ed. He didn’t describe drinking fracking fluid, as he did before a Senate committee in 2013. He didn’t mention blocking reform of a nearly 70-year-old statute that made Colorado state government a promoter rather than a regulator of fracking. And, remarkably, he forgot to take credit for a quadrupling of fracking in Colorado under his watch.
He never denied any of this. He just didn’t mention it, apparently counting on Colorado’s decimated newspaper industry to keep his secret. As usual, his sole reference to the subject was to brag about a first-in-the-nation agreement to regulate methane emissions in 2014.
Methane emissions from what? He doesn’t say. The only mention of “drilling” — not oil drilling, just drilling — in the op-ed is a condemnation of President Trump for trying to expand it on public lands. But it’s expanding on public lands in Boulder County and Hickenlooper had no problem with that.
What about the massive expansion of fracking in and around residential neighborhoods in the northern Denver metro area? What about attempts by a number of local jurisdictions to call a halt to residential fracking, only to be rebuffed by state courts because of the enabling statute Hickenlooper prevented from being revised?
Not a word.
With Hickenlooper out of office, Colorado Democrats have set their sights on reforms that were blocked in the Oil and Gas Task Force he assembled in 2014 as part of a deal to get reform measures off the ballot that fall. Measures backing more local control and taking the state’s thumb off the scale in favor of the oil industry won majority support in the task force. But the governor’s rules required two-thirds support for a recommendation to move forward, and he stacked the task force with enough industry representatives to block those changes.
Judging by his op-ed, he believes he can keep this information from Democratic caucus and primary voters in other states. Hickenlooper 2020 is all about fighting climate change and saving the planet. But anyone with even cursory knowledge of the Paris climate accord or the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change knows that massive increases in oil and gas drilling, like those Colorado saw under Hickenlooper, are inconsistent with the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions those bodies call for.
If he is forced to address it, Hickenlooper will no doubt rely on his “Colorado has the strictest oil and gas regulations in the country” defense, which he used many times while in office.
That seemed to work for lots of Democrats in Colorado, where oil and gas drilling is a given, but less well after two people were killed in a 2017 home explosion in Firestone caused by an abandoned flow line. And it’s not likely to appeal to the climate activists he appeared to be courting in the op-ed, particularly those in the east, who are aware that New York State banned fracking altogether.
One hint of Hickenlooper’s conflicted nature on this score came when he was asked at a New Hampshire appearance to join many other Democrats nationally in signing the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge in his presidential campaign.
At first he said he would, then he said he wouldn’t. He explained he couldn’t be responsible for knowing whether individual donors work in the oil and gas industry. But among individuals, the pledge refers only to executives, and requires a policy not to “knowingly” accept donations from them.
“I don’t think he’s our climate champion,” said Griffin Sinclair-Wingate, who asked Hickenlooper to sign the pledge on behalf of New Hampshire Youth Movement.
The moderate lane Hickenlooper wants to fill in the Democratic primary field is wide open. Former Vice President Joe Biden is expected to run there, but he hasn’t joined the race yet. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, like Hickenlooper, is largely unknown outside her home state. Former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke might fill it if he ever gets around to revealing where he stands . . . on anything.
But Hickenlooper cannot fill it by trying to bury one of his principal legacies as Colorado governor. At some point, he will have to explain how his vision of fighting climate change is served by the enormous increase in fracking he oversaw.
There is an argument to be made for this view — namely, that our national economy in 2019 remains heavily reliant on fossil fuels, and until that changes, we need all the oil and gas we can extract.
But it’s an argument likely to be received more warmly by Republicans than by Democrats, who are looking for policies to change that reality, not accommodate it. Hickenlooper seems aware of this; hence his sudden urge in the op-ed “to save the planet” rather than trumpet a four-fold increase in fracking in Colorado.
But if he’s unwilling to defend his policies as governor, another former chief of staff, now U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, who worked for Hickenlooper when he was Denver mayor, might better represent Colorado’s moderate blue lane on the national stage.
Sooner or later, if Hickenlooper hopes to be taken seriously by Democrats nationally, he will have to reconcile his emerging rhetoric with his actual record.
Dave Krieger has been a Colorado journalist since 1981. @davekrieger
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