Can Hickenlooper 2020 Outrun His “Frackenlooper” Legacy?

Danielle Lirette

The day after John Hickenlooper asked the American people to elect him president because of his ability to get things done, the State Capitol swarmed with people arguing over one thing he didn't settle before he left the governor's mansion.

Lines to pass through security wrapped around the building as hundreds of environmental activists and representatives of the fossil-fuel industry sought to testify at a March 5 committee hearing on Senate Bill 181, Democrats’ long-awaited package of oil and gas reforms. Testimony lasted until 1:30 a.m. on March 6, at which point the bill advanced on a 4-3 party-line vote.

Oil and gas issues are once again at the forefront of Colorado politics, more than a decade after modern fracking rigs began encroaching upon fast-growing suburbs north of Denver — and almost a decade after Hickenlooper, a former petroleum geologist, ascended to the governorship.

Again and again during Hickenlooper’s two terms in office, environmental and neighborhood groups battled oil and gas interests over the health, environmental and climate impacts of the state’s shale drilling boom. And activists usually emerged from these clashes feeling let down, if not outright betrayed, by their Democratic governor: They don't call him “Frackenlooper” for nothing. (Hickenlooper did not return our request for comment.)

“His legacy on energy and and the environment is pretty horrible,” says Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director at the environmental group WildEarth Guardians. “He certainly helped clean energy gain a stronger foothold in the state, but he also oversaw a unprecedented fracking boom — and not only oversaw it, but actively encouraged it.”

The bill Democrats have proposed is a much more ambitious version of the legislation Hickenlooper and other Democrats tried and failed to pass in 2014, the last time the party was fully in control at the Capitol. The failure prompted environmental activists, supported at the time by then-U.S. Representative Jared Polis, to bypass Democrats in the legislature and place a pair of anti-fracking initiatives on the 2014 ballot.

Hickenlooper and much of the rest of the state’s political establishment fought desperately to keep the measures from going to a vote, leading to a controversial, last-minute compromise between Polis and the oil and gas lobby, which had bankrolled a pair of retaliatory initiatives of their own. All four measures were withdrawn, and Hickenlooper convened a task force to study the issue and make recommendations to state regulators. The ensuing rule changes did little to satisfy activists, and the expansion of drilling activity into densely populated Front Range communities continued largely unchecked.

As a result, tensions over fracking have continued to simmer and occasionally boil over, through the end of Hickenlooper's second term and into the marathon committee hearing on SB 181. Left unsaid when Democrats tout their new bill as "the most meaningful reform that Colorado will have ever seen in oil and gas," as Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg put it last month, is the fact that Hickenlooper wasn't able to get it done.

“We had high hopes,” says Nichols. “But he certainly let us down in a lot of key ways. And I think we’re seeing the consequences of that. We’re seeing legislators recognize that they can't just pay lip service — that things actually have to change."

Hickenlooper has touted the climate benefits of natural gas, which generally burns cleaner than coal — especially when leaks are minimized, as the methane-emissions rules enacted by the Hickenlooper administration in 2014 are designed to do. Many environmental groups credit the former governor for adopting those rules, which were the first of their kind in the country, and Hickenlooper’s announcement video listed them among his top accomplishments.

But it’s the production of oil, not natural gas, that skyrocketed under Hickenlooper’s leadership. When he took office in 2011, operators were pumping an average of about 2.7 million barrels per month; by last year, that figure had risen to an average of nearly 14 million, more than a five-fold increase. And with more than 6,000 new permits waiting to be approved by state regulators, this soaring growth in production won’t be slowing down any time soon.

The climate impacts of all this produced oil, once it is refined, burned and released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, could be catastrophic. According to a 2019 report by Oil Change International, the carbon emissions that result from the combustion of oil and gas extracted from the Denver Basin between now and 2050 are projected to total more than 50 gigatons — equal to the lifetime emissions of over 50 coal-fired power plants.

Nichols points to other, often overlooked aspects of Hickenlooper’s record, like his support for the West Elk coal mine in Gunnison County. As governor, he supported a request for a royalty rate reduction for the mine, helping  operator Arch Coal save millions, and rebuffed calls from WildEarth Guardians and other groups to impose stricter limits on methane emissions, as he had with oil and gas facilities.

In a crowded Democratic primary field full of candidates rushing to embrace the Green New Deal, is there any room for an ex-governor who once famously bragged about drinking a glass of Halliburton fracking fluid? Nichols and other veterans of Colorado's fracking wars aren't buying it. And with proposals for ambitious climate action taking on a greater urgency in Democratic policymaking circles, Hickenlooper's energy record, and his self-image as a moderate deal-maker, is unlikely to endear him to many voters in the party's base.

“He puts himself out there as a broker of compromise, a middle-of-the-roader,” says Nichols. “He obviously embraces that. But it often came at the expense of Coloradans. It came at the expense of our clean air, our clean water and our climate progress.”
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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