As Hickenlooper Weighs a Senate Run, Climate Activists Hope He Stays Out

John Hickenlooper in the video in which he announced the end of his presidential campaign.
John Hickenlooper in the video in which he announced the end of his presidential campaign. YouTube
A towering fracking rig stood just a few hundred yards away as Broomfield City Councilwoman Guyleen Castriotta addressed a small crowd of Democrats who had gathered in a park in the north Denver suburb on Monday, August 19.

“As you can see right behind us, our neighborhoods are getting fracked,” said Castriotta. “Our health and safety has taken a back seat to oil and gas development. Our air quality gets an ‘F’ rating. And Senator [Cory] Gardner has taken a pass on dealing with oil and gas in residential neighborhoods.”

Castriotta was addressing progressive activists at an event that marked an unofficial start to the campaign to unseat Gardner, a first-term Republican senator who faces an uphill battle to win re-election in 2020. The Cardboard Cory Bus Tour, sponsored by a coalition of left-leaning groups and starring the life-sized Gardner cutout that has become a regular at rallies and protests over the past few years, had kicked off in Denver earlier that day and made its first stop in Broomfield, where few issues are as controversial as the impacts of oil and gas drilling.

“Senator Gardner has accepted almost $700,000 in campaign contributions from the fossil-fuel industry,” Castriotta said. “Just a word of caution: We should scrutinize all candidates who accept donations from the oil and gas industry and their employees.”

At that, the crowd cheered. Whether or not everyone realized it, it was a statement that had broader implications than it might have had a week or two earlier.

Days after former governor John Hickenlooper announced the end of his short-lived presidential campaign, nearly everyone in Colorado politics expects him to soon announce his candidacy for Gardner’s Senate seat. For months, top national Democrats and even Hckenlooper's own campaign staff had urged him to drop out and run for Senate, and in a video statement on the end of his White House bid last week, he pledged to give the idea “some serious thought.”

With high name recognition and support from the party establishment, Hickenlooper would instantly become the favorite to win a crowded Democratic primary and defeat Gardner next year. But if there’s anything that’s going to trip Hickenlooper up during his seemingly inevitable march to the U.S. Senate, it’s the issues that plagued him throughout his two terms as governor: oil and gas, and climate change.

“He’s got a lot of explaining to do,” says Dana Miller, an activist with the progressive group Indivisible, which has become omnipresent in Democratic organizing circles since its formation just after President Donald Trump's 2016 election. “We will need to hear some pretty strong plans for climate because of his ties to oil and gas.”

Broomfield is one of more than a dozen communities along the Front Range that has been encroached upon by fossil fuel development over the past decade. Driven by technological advances like fracking and horizontal drilling, Colorado’s oil and gas industry underwent a massive expansion beginning in the mid-2000s — and as traditional oil- and gas-producing areas in rural Weld County became saturated with new drilling, operations increasingly spread southward into dense, fast-growing residential neighborhoods on the northern edge of the Denver metro area.

Colorado state law, much of it written decades prior, offered little help to Front Range residents worried about the health and safety impacts of the large, modern, heavy-industrial fracking sites that began popping up in their back yards. They asked their city councils to act, but local governments were legally barred from regulating drilling; they lobbied for reforms at the Capitol, but were stonewalled; they asked the courts to intervene, but had no luck there, either.

Presiding over these one-sided battles was Hickenlooper, who had first put down roots in Colorado as a geologist for Buckhorn Petroleum in the 1980s and had maintained close ties to the industry ever since. Between the launch of his first campaign for governor and the end of his presidential bid last week, Hickenlooper accepted over $300,000 in contributions from the fossil-fuel industry, state and federal campaign-finance records show.

“He’s just a little too industry-friendly, I think,” says Castriotta, who ran for Broomfield City Council in 2017 on a platform of reining in drilling in residential areas. “He didn’t prioritize health and safety, and he had every opportunity to do so.”

In 2014, Hickenlooper’s inaction on fracking led environmental activists, backed by then-representative Jared Polis of Boulder, to launch two separate ballot initiatives to strengthen health and safety protections. A last-minute deal brokered by Hickenlooper kept the measures off the ballot, and instead convened a task force to study the issue and make recommendations to state regulators. In the meantime, the governor continued to alienate activists with his support for oil and gas development. His administration joined an industry lawsuit against Longmont over its fracking ban in 2013, and Hickenlooper repeatedly threatened to do the same to any town that restricted drilling. His efforts on the industry's behalf earned him the nickname "Frackenlooper."

“One hundred percent of the time, he went to bat for the oil and gas industry and put the demands of fracking companies ahead of everyday Coloradans and communities,” says Jeremy Nichols, director of the climate and energy program at the environmental group WildEarth Guardians.

Under Polis, who succeeded Hickenlooper as governor earlier this year, Colorado Democrats were finally able to pass a sweeping package of oil and gas reforms that grants city and county governments land-use authority over drilling and places a greater emphasis on health and safety in state law. But the long-term impacts of Colorado’s oil and gas boom — like its effect on the region’s air quality and implications for the world’s climate — are only beginning to be felt, and critics of Hickenlooper’s record worry about the approach he would take to energy issues in the Senate.

“We need someone who is truly going to elevate our climate emergency, and Governor Hickenlooper’s record on that hasn’t been too swell,” Castriotta says. “He didn’t do anything to stop the permitting of so much oil and gas development, which is why we have such serious ozone non-attainment.”

In 2018, the industry shattered records by producing nearly 180 million barrels of oil in Colorado, representing a 539 percent increase since Hickenlooper had taken office eight years earlier. That explosive growth has been partially responsible for the Denver metro area’s worsening air quality; emissions of ozone-forming pollutants from oil and gas facilities along the Front Range make up nearly half of the region’s local sources of ozone formation. And a five-fold increase in oil production means a five-fold increase in the amount of climate-altering greenhouse gases that Colorado is releasing into the air.

As governor, Hickenlooper signed on in 2017 to the U.S. Climate Alliance, a coalition of states committed to meeting the greenhouse gas emissions targets outlined in the Paris Agreement, and has been a supporter of so-called demand-side policies that reduce reliance on fossil fuels by incentivizing alternatives like wind and solar power and electric vehicles. But his strong support for the continued expansion of oil and gas production alarms many climate activists who believe that the supply of fossil fuels needs to be restricted. More than 90 percent of the world’s carbon emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels, and scientists have warned that global emissions must be cut nearly in half by 2030 to keep global temperature rise below catastrophic levels.

“This is all hands on deck right now,” Nichols says. “We’re in the middle of a climate crisis, and we need a both-end approach. You limit production, which incentivizes more demand for alternatives — and the more alternatives are available, the less we need production. It’s really one-dimensional and narrow-minded to just say it has to be all demand-side.”

During his brief presidential run, Hickenlooper repeatedly touted the rules aimed at reducing methane leaks from oil and gas facilities that Colorado enacted on his watch in 2014, holding the regulations up as a model for climate policy-making at the national level. Activists, however, say that the methane rules are emblematic of everything wrong with Hickenlooper’s approach to climate and energy policy: They’ve reduced Colorado’s emissions only by a small fraction of the statewide total, and may actually increase emissions overall by incentivizing more production.

“We can’t frack our way to a safe climate,” says Nichols. “You can’t say that in the same breath as saying you believe in climate action.”

With Democratic voters placing more emphasis than ever on strong climate action heading into what could be a make-or-break 2020 election, it won't be easy for Hickenlooper to connect with the party faithful on the issue if he decides to jump into the Senate race. He was one of just three candidates in a crowded Democratic presidential primary to refuse to sign the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge promoted by the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate activist group; a super PAC formed to support his candidacy received a $100,000 contribution from natural-gas magnate Michael Smith in June.

“He’s definitely not somebody that we will support as a Senate candidate,” says Michele Weindling, an organizer with the Sunrise Movement. “There are a lot of candidates that are currently running on the idea of being a climate champion, and Hickenlooper is definitely not one of them.”

Shortly after announcing his presidential candidacy, Hickenlooper criticized the Green New Deal, an ambitious climate program favored by the Sunrise Movement and other activists in the party's progressive wing, in an op-ed in the Washington Post. But the thinly sketched climate plan his campaign released weeks later was panned by environmental groups, with the League of Conservation Voters saying it fell "short of the mark."

Several candidates already running for Gardner's seat — including Alice Madden, a former climate adviser to Governor Bill Ritter, and Englewood activist Diana Bray — have made climate policy a centerpiece of their campaigns, and many others are likely to try to draw a clear contrast with Hickenlooper's industry-friendly, middle-of-the-road approach.

“This race is not just about flipping a seat from red to blue, it’s about changing the Senate from paralysis to progress,” says Andrew Romanoff, a former speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives and one of Gardner’s top challengers. “Cory Gardner’s denialism, his approach to the climate crisis, doesn’t do the trick, and neither do the baby steps that others have proposed.”

Democratic activists plan to hold a candidate forum on the climate crisis in early October, and whether or not Hickenlooper runs, they hope to elevate the issue and give every candidate a chance to lay out their plans for reducing emissions and accelerating the transition to clean energy.

“My biggest concern is that Hickenlooper will suck all of the oxygen out of the room and we won’t even get to hear from the other amazing candidates, in particular the women,” says Miller.

Led by Indivisible and other groups, a wave of liberal and progressive organizing has helped energize and reshape Democratic politics in Colorado and beyond over the past two years — a grassroots movement driven predominantly by women and people of color, passionate about the impacts of fracking, climate change, health care, immigration and many other issues. A top-down "coronation" of a nominee, as one of Hickenlooper's potential primary rivals called it, would in many ways run counter to that movement. But activists like Miller suspect that if the former governor does run, he'll have a tougher primary fight than many expect.

“I wonder about the conventional wisdom that says, ‘If he gets in, he’s got it, it’s a done deal,’” she says. “I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case.”
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Chase Woodruff is a staff writer at Westword interested in climate change, the environment and money in politics.
Contact: Chase Woodruff