In an act of remarkable if not surprising hypocrisy, the climate change-denying Republican Party is attacking former Gov. John Hickenlooper for not being tough enough on the oil and gas industry.
Unfortunately for Hickenlooper, the criticism is accurate.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee’s latest ad targets Hickenlooper for the 2017 home explosion in Firestone that killed two people and injured a third. The explosion was caused by an abandoned flow line from a nearby well owned by Anadarko Petroleum, since acquired by Occidental Petroleum.
The ad hits Hick for accepting a donation from Anadarko just weeks after the fatal explosion. It is based on a Colorado Sun-CBS 4 investigation that found that Hickenlooper accepted at least $325,000 in donations from the oil and gas industry during his second term alone to fund initiatives and positions in his administration.
There’s no doubt that accepting money from Anadarko in the wake of the tragic explosion carries a stench, but the fact is, as The Sun’s investigation pointed out, this was business as usual in the Hickenlooper administration.
It is a joke, of course, to imply that any Republican governor, let alone a Gov. Cory Gardner, would have been tougher on the oil and gas industry. There is zero chance of that. The GOP, both locally and nationally, continues to put the profits of the fossil fuel industry ahead of protecting the human habitat it endangers.
But that’s not really where the ad is going. Republican campaign strategists know that no sentient environmentalist is going to choose Gardner over Hickenlooper in their U.S. Senate race on the grounds that he’ll stand taller against fossil fuel interests. The fossil fuel industry loves this matchup precisely because it knows it will have a friend in the Senate either way.
No, the purpose of the ad is to suppress turnout for Hickenlooper among voters concerned about the environment, a significant constituency in Denver and Boulder counties, Colorado’s leading Democratic strongholds.
The reason it could be effective is that Hickenlooper has refused to come clean about his record on oil and gas.
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Oil production in Colorado increased by 450% during his time as governor, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, from 39 million barrels in 2011, his first year in office, to 178 million in 2018, his last.
Hickenlooper’s fondness for fracking, reflected in tributes to the oil industry at the Denver Petroleum Club and made famous during a 2013 testimonial to drinking fracking fluid before a Senate committee, earned him the nickname Gov. Frackenlooper.
When I worked in Boulder County during Hickenlooper’s second term, environmentalists there viewed him as the enemy. He bullied local jurisdictions that voted to suspend or ban fracking by threatening to sue them. He clung to and blocked reform of a 1950s-era law that put the state in bed with the oil industry.
As soon as he left office, more progressive Democrats passed a sweeping reform of that law and Hickenlooper’s successor in the governor’s office, Jared Polis, signed it.
It is simply indisputable that Hickenlooper abetted the industry in its pursuit of growth in fracking and blocked attempts to curb it while in office. Whenever the subject comes up, he falls back on a single reform, methane emission rules approved in 2014, that were indeed a progressive step forward. But they do not obliterate the rest of his record.
Now that he is running for the Senate, he is suddenly a climate-change warrior. It is, he says now, an existential threat, the most important challenge we face.
Because he refuses to reconcile his record with his rhetoric, these claims ring hollow. They sound like nothing more than pandering for votes from a politician whose main goal is climbing the next rung on the career ladder.
The Sun’s John Frank tried, as others have, to get Hickenlooper to address these conflicts by asking if he still supported fracking during a debate prior to the Democratic primary. As usual, Hickenlooper sidestepped the question.
For Democrats, the incentive is strong to vote for whoever appears on the ballot against Gardner. Flipping the Senate and ending Mitch McConnell’s tyrannical reign is second only to deposing the president among their goals in the fall. But many members of Colorado’s core environmental constituency are ambivalent about voting for Hickenlooper. On climate, they just don’t believe him.
Hickenlooper could go a long way to alleviating the doubts of environmentalists by finally being honest about the subject. He could, as Julián Castro did while running for president, acknowledge his prior views and explain how they’ve evolved.
Lots of politicians change their views over time; in fact, all the good ones do. Politicians who refuse to acknowledge these changes, who refuse to admit mistakes, are less trustworthy. We see that in our current president.
Hickenlooper appears to believe that if he just keeps repeating homilies about climate change, keeps pandering to a Democratic base he needs, the truth of his record will be obscured. Repeat anything often enough and people will begin to believe it. Truth is fungible; propaganda works.
It is a cynical view that debases voters and the political process. And it is arguably disqualifying for a candidate with no discernible ideological foundation, a man who has based his political career on a charming personality.
There is still time for Hickenlooper to neutralize these hypocritical Republican attacks by talking truthfully about fracking, fossil fuels, climate and the evolution of his beliefs. Having done that, he could pivot to exposing the hubris of the climate change denial party.
But so long as his own denial and pandering are his only answers, attacks on his coziness with the oil and gas industry will find purchase among environmentalists he needs to vote for him.
Because they’re true.
Dave Krieger has been a Colorado journalist since 1981. @davekrieger
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