A funny thing happened after I suggested in this space a month ago that John Hickenlooper’s enthusiasm for fracking as Colorado governor might pose a problem for his U.S. Senate campaign among progressive Democrats.

I got an email from Aaron Johnson, vice president of public affairs for the Western Energy Alliance. He wanted me to know Hickenlooper now opposes oil drilling on public lands and therefore might no longer be as fracking-friendly as I alleged.

The Western Energy Alliance is an oil and gas industry trade association. Why would the oil and gas industry be trying to downplay a candidate’s support of the oil and gas industry?

Dave Krieger. Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon.

Just spitballing here, but maybe to help him out in a Democratic Party primary, where supporting the oil and gas industry is unlikely to be helpful?

This is where we are as we close out a month that saw climate strike marches all over the world and a 16-year-old Swedish girl sail across the Atlantic to lecture the United Nations on intergenerational moral cowardice: The oil and gas industry is trying to help out an old friend by claiming he doesn’t support the oil and gas industry as much as he used to. 

The fossil fuel industry’s disinformation campaign on climate change has been well-documented. Is it paranoid to imagine that Hickenlooper is the oil and gas industry’s latest Trojan Horse? What would be better for oil and gas than a U.S. Senate race in Colorado featuring two candidates who are friends of oil and gas?

So I reached out again to the two Boulder County progressive leaders who took advantage of Hickenlooper’s departure from the governor’s office to pass oil and gas reforms that Hickenlooper blocked while in office — House Speaker KC Becker and Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg.

Alas, they’re still not talking. Becker was kind enough to return my second call, but declined to be interviewed on the subject of the Senate race. Fenberg didn’t return either call, but texted an apology between the two.

The reason, according to sources familiar with the progressive wing of the state party, is probably practical politics. Due to his universal name recognition and proven ability to win statewide elections, Hickenlooper is widely viewed within the party as the inevitable Senate nominee.

Shortly after he jumped into the race, three other candidates dropped out. One of them, former state Sen. Mike Johnston, the leading fundraiser at the time, said he concluded he would have had to go negative on Hickenlooper to close the gap and he didn’t want to do that.

So there are two dangers for progressives — backing a losing candidate, and damaging the ultimate nominee along the way, perhaps hurting the party’s chances of unseating Republican incumbent Cory Gardner.

On the other side of the argument is a more profound question: What do Colorado Democrats want to stand for on energy and the environment in 2020?

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Becker offered another bread crumb on Twitter last week.  She tweeted out a link to a Colorado Sun story that examined the potential influence of climate-change voters on the Senate primary race. The story was prompted by the Sept. 20 climate strike march on the state Capitol. Hickenlooper skipped the event, The Sun reported, citing a scheduling conflict.

By tweeting out the link with a quote from the story, Becker highlighted the main area of dispute between Hickenlooper and Boulder County progressives while he was governor.

The story, like the silent progressive Democrats, took it easy on Hickenlooper, who earned the nickname “Frackenlooper” through two terms as governor.

He was grouped with more progressive candidates — Alice Madden and Andrew Romanoff — in declaring that climate change is the most important issue in the race. (Full disclosure: I did three weeks of volunteer work for Romanoff’s policy shop last winter when I was out of journalism.)

Four potential stumbling blocks for Hickenlooper came up — his work years ago as a geologist in the oil industry, his failure to back the Green New Deal, a publicity stunt in which he drank fracking fluid to prove it was safe, and the observation that he “declined to support tougher regulations on the industry advocated by environmentalists.”

This last turn of phrase is a very genteel way of describing a governor who presided over a 400% increase in Colorado oil production and threatened to sue any local jurisdiction that tried to stop fracking within its borders during his eight years at the Capitol.

This is the irony of Hickenlooper’s current claim that he opposes oil drilling on public lands. When oil and gas drillers invaded Boulder County Open Space while he was governor — public lands close to home — he did not lift a finger to stop them. Indeed, then-attorney general Cynthia Coffman sued the county on behalf of the state to strike down its drilling moratorium.

A reckoning is coming for politicians who want to have this both ways. This month’s climate strike marches all over the world were prompted in large part by the most recent findings of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which spotlight the enormous disconnect between the speed of climate change and the speed of efforts to address it.

The difference between Hickenlooper’s words and actions on this subject personifies this disconnect.

The IPCC reported last fall that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the goal of the Paris climate accord, will require cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030. Based on the current trajectory, the International Energy Agency sees worldwide CO2 emissions continuing to rise through at least 2040.

Climate change deniers and skeptics, who still make up much of the Republican Party’s elected class, say the IPCC is wrong. Hickenlooper could take that tack; he could justify his enthusiasm for fracking by saying the crisis is not as bad as environmentalists claim. But that would doom him in a Democratic Party primary, so he’s not saying that.

Instead, he’s saying he’s the ultimate climate change warrior, he’s been working on this since the ’90s. So how does that square with the massive increase in fracking he enabled and supported as governor as recently as one year ago?

Navigable corridors exist between Hickenlooper’s actions as governor and his proclamations as a Senate candidate. Julián Castro demonstrated one of them during CNN’s recent Climate Town Hall. Castro acknowledged he supported fracking as mayor of San Antonio from 2009 to 2014. He recalled natural gas being described as a bridge fuel, and added, “We’re coming to the end of the bridge.”

Castro suggested two things. First, the severity and immediacy of the crisis was not as evident then as it is now. Second, if he knew then what he knows now his position would have been different then.

Hickenlooper has said neither of these things. He has yet to walk back his active support for fracking as governor. If we are to take him at his word, he believes climate change is the existential issue of our time and he also believes fracking is fine.

These positions are contradictory. Most greenhouse gas emissions come from burning fossil fuels. Each new well pad adds to the supply of these greenhouse gas-emitting fuels at a time the IPCC says we should be reducing their use.

Hickenlooper has never apologized to the local jurisdictions that tried to stop the expansion of fracking into residential neighborhoods and were thwarted by an alliance between state government and the oil and gas industry. He has never admitted he might have been wrong. 

So, back to our original question. Are progressive Democratic leaders keeping their mouths shut about the race because they consider Hickenlooper inevitable and don’t want to back the wrong horse?

“That could make sense; I wouldn’t rule it out, for sure,” said state Sen. Mike Foote of Lafayette, a Boulder County legislator who has not been afraid to criticize Hickenlooper’s record on fracking.

“Personally, I’ve not, at least recently, made endorsements based upon perceived electability. I’ve done that before and I’ve come to regret it. I make my endorsement decisions based upon who I believe in and who I think would do a good job. Sometimes those people are the ones that are perceived favorites. Sometimes they aren’t. If you’re in the endorsement game just to add your name to the winning cause, then I can see how that would affect your decision-making.”

You may recall that Foote endorsed Johnston for U.S. Senate the last time I asked. Johnston dropped out of the race shortly thereafter, without endorsing Hickenlooper. Foote is now uncommitted.

“I’ll come up with someone to support,” he said. “I’m not in a huge hurry, but I’ll figure it out eventually.”

Much of the progressive wing of the state Democratic Party feels the same. It just doesn’t want to say so out loud.

Dave Krieger has been a Colorado journalist since 1981. @davekrieger

The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the newsroom. Read our ethics policy for more on The Sun’s opinion policy and submit columns, suggested writers and more to opinion@coloradosun.com.

Special to The Colorado Sun
Twitter: @DaveKrieger