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Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks to reporters on Aug. 22, 2019, the day he announced he was running for U.S. Senate. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

A former geologist for an oil and gas company, John Hickenlooper emerged as one of the industry’s most vocal Democratic supporters in his two terms as Colorado governor.

He drank fracking fluid from Halliburton to prove its safety. He opposed tougher regulations and threatened to sue local governments that banned fracking. And he lauded the benefits of the technology in his memoir, saying “fracking is good for … our environment.”

Now, as the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, he’s shifting his posture — a bit. He still opposes a ban on fracking in Colorado, but declared in June that he wants “to make fracking obsolete.” He is embracing a transition to a 100% renewable energy economy and net-zero emissions by 2050, but it’s a nuanced position that envisions drilling for oil and gas for decades to come.

The apparent conflict in his record and rhetoric puts Hickenlooper in a political pinch: Some environmental activists remain skeptical and suggest he lacks the urgency needed to address climate change, while at the same time his “obsolete” remark risks alienating a major Colorado industry that he once courted.

Anne Lee Foster at Safe and Healthy Colorado, a coalition of organizations that oppose drilling near communities, said Hickenlooper is “using buzz words but not really addressing the problem.”

“He’s done very little to make fracking obsolete, and he’s done an enormous amount to support this destructive practice in Colorado,” Foster said.

Oil and gas industry representatives still believe Hickenlooper is open-minded enough to work with him, but they did notice a change in tone. “There’s a small extreme faction in this state that is calling for the end of oil and gas and they are loud, and now I think you have some leading Democrats lean in that direction, as we saw Gov. Hickenlooper do in his run for president and Senate,” said Dan Haley, the president and chief executive officer at the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.

An oil and gas drilling rig is pictured between houses on June 5, 2020, in Weld County. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The split-screen view reflects the top of the Democratic ticket, where presidential candidate Joe Biden recently reversed course and said he would not ban fracking, despite saying earlier in the campaign that he supported such a move.

The wavering is opening the candidates to criticism from Republicans who suggest a Democratic president and U.S. Senate would lead to the oil and gas industry’s demise. 

President Donald Trump and his GOP allies are reiterating the argument in their effort to persuade Colorado voters. And U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, the Republican incumbent, is expected to step up his criticism of Hickenlooper on the issue as soon as this weekend. Gardner will appear at the Club 20 conference in Grand Junction and argue that his Democratic rival wants to crush the oil and gas industry. Hickenlooper is skipping the event.

“Gov. Hickenlooper has said he wants to make fracking obsolete, and in turn, put more than 230,000 Colorado workers out of a job,” Gardner told The Colorado Sun. “Unlike John Hickenlooper, I am fighting for more jobs — not fewer. During an economic crisis, the last thing Coloradans want their leaders to do is to force mass layoffs and that is exactly what the Hickenlooper plan would do.”

2020 debate reflects 2016 campaign — with a notable difference

The current oil and gas debate is reminiscent of the U.S. Senate race six years ago in which Gardner upset Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall.

Back then, Udall similarly tried to walk a tightrope between environmentalists and the industry. Udall faced criticism from some environmentalists for siding with the industry in opposition to more stringent regulations in a pair of ballot measures even as Gardner blasted him as anti-energy. Udall — and Hickenlooper — helped prevent those measures from appearing on the ballot in 2014.

At the time, many Democrats still considered natural gas, which burns cleaner than coal, as part of the solution to climate change. But the conversation is different in 2020 as environmental activists push for more urgent measures — including a prohibition on oil and gas drilling — to reduce the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Hickenlooper and other leading Democrats, such as Biden, want to change the conversation. Instead of talking about oil and gas drilling — a hot topic right now as Colorado crafts new regulations on the industry — Hickenlooper’s campaign website is focused on reducing pollution emissions and boosting renewable energy. 

Hickenlooper declined multiple interview requests from The Sun to discuss where he stands on oil and gas. A campaign spokesman recently pushed back against a suggestion that Hickenlooper supports fracking, saying the candidate favors moving away from it.

His plan to address climate change calls for moving to “a 100% renewable energy economy with net-zero emissions by 2050” and an interim goal of a 43% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2030. He supports rejoining the Paris Climate Accord to enforce stricter emissions goals but says the U.S. needs to do more. And he supports a move to 100% electric vehicles.

To buttress his credentials, the site points to his record as governor when he committed Colorado to the climate accord and worked with the oil and gas industry and environmental organizations to put a limit on methane emissions.

The campaign website notes he opposed allowing oil and gas drilling near the Thompson Divide, an expanse of public lands on the Western Slope, but makes no other mention about where he stands on the extraction of fossil fuels or his record of supporting the industry as governor.

Earlier in the U.S. Senate campaign, Hickenlooper argued that fracking bans would only shift oil and gas development to other states and dismissed the need to cut off supply to address climate change, as some environmental activists want to see. “You can’t stop it. If we stopped it here, it’s like trying to put your finger in a dike that has a thousand holes,” he told The Colorado Independent in November. “It would make no difference to the climate.”

Hickenlooper’s plan lacks specifics and leaves questions unanswered, experts say

For environmental activists and experts, Hickenlooper’s platform still includes plenty of gaps and question marks as it lacks specifics on how to accomplish it. 

His push for renewable energy only appears to apply to the electric grid, which is a major pollution source but not the only one. And a net-zero emissions means that fossil fuel production can continue as long as those emissions are offset by efforts that take pollution out of the atmosphere, such as through sequestering carbon in the soil. At this point, the goal for net-zero emissions is aspirational at best, as the technology  doesn’t exist on a large scale.

“If you are doing (net-zero emissions) correctly, it’s fine from a climate standpoint,” said Erin Overturf, the deputy director at Western Resource Advocates, a clean energy proponent. The challenge she added: “Are those offsets and negative emissions … permanent? How long do they last? Are they real? There just needs to be a ton of scrutiny on the negative emissions.”

U.S. Senate candidate John Hickenlooper speaks at a candidate forum held at Centennial Middle School in Montrose on Oct. 20, 2019. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Moreover, Overturf said that even if a technology could take greenhouse gas emissions out of the air, there’s no guarantee that other particulates and hazardous air pollutants from oil and gas production would be similarly removed or offset.

Mike Foote, a state senator and lawyer working on oil and gas issues, battled for tougher environmental regulations against the Hickenlooper administration as a member of the General Assembly. 

“We faced an administration that was quite skeptical of those bills, to say the least,” Foote said. “Whether or not it was because of sympathy to industry or something else, I couldn’t tell you.”

Now he says Hickenlooper’s campaign plan needs more urgency. “Someone calling for (changes by) 2050 may well be too late,” he said. “We need to have more aggressive goals.”

Trish Zornio, a former Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Colorado who has discussed climate policies with the Hickenlooper campaign, said his net-zero plan is unclear to what role off-sets and carbon capture have in achieving the goals laid out. “In fact, there are few specific goals listed that I see, it’s more general goals. … Also, there appears to be little in the way of directly calling for the elimination (or) near elimination of fossil fuel use across multiple sectors, which is driving emissions.”

When looking at Hickenlooper and Biden’s plan — which is broader in calling for “100% clean energy economy” — Zornio said her “biggest concern (is) that the goals are not strong enough early on, which matters due to compounding effects.” But on the whole, she is backing the Democrats because they “will act on climate — Republicans won’t.”

Kelly Nordini, the executive director of Conservation Colorado, echoed the conclusion: “I think the choice is pretty clear. Sen. Gardner says one thing in Colorado and does another in D.C.,  namely voting against clean air and climate action,” she said.

Gardner acknowledges that climate change is real and says he supports an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy and says he has worked hard to protect funding for Colorado’s National Renewable Energy Lab to research solar energy technologies. But a number of his votes concern environmentalists, including votes to advance a resolution denouncing a federal rule limiting methane emission on public lands, approve the Keystone XL pipeline and allow drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 

His campaign did not respond to a question about how dire he believes the climate threat to be, but his website says “his bipartisan approach aims to reduce emissions, combat climate change, and grow the economy.” 

Oil and gas sees a future in Colorado even with Democrats in office

The American Petroleum Institute and Colorado industry leaders say they are still evaluating the policy proposals put forward by Democrats but see an opportunity to work with Hickenlooper and Biden, given their less aggressive stance on climate change compared to others in the Democratic Party, even while expressing concerns.

“As an industry, we feel like there’s a future for us in either direction,” said Haley at the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. “Obviously, you need fossil fuels to create renewables and you’ll need us for other parts of your life that use fossil fuels.”

And Haley’s willing to discount the talk on the campaign trail when it comes to fracking. “We are unfortunately accustomed to the more extreme rhetoric we hear on the campaign trail in Colorado or across the country,” he added. 

Tisha Schuller, an energy industry consultant, suggested Hickenlooper’s position acknowledges the reality that the oil and gas industry is part of the solution moving forward.

“The political chasm has to be bridged, and I do think it is, at this moment in time, the obligation and responsibility of the industry to build those bridges,” she said. 

She served as the former president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association when Hickenlooper served as governor. “My experience at that time was that Gov. Hickenlooper was focused on transcending those divides, he didn’t fall in line neatly with political identity that if you are an environmentalist you have to oppose oil and gas,” she said.

Colorado Sun staff writer Evan Ochsner contributed to this report.

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.