Tom Steyer is back in Colorado politics. Well, actually, he never really left. Anyone who follows politics in our state should know Steyer well. He’s the environmental activist and California hedge-fund billionaire who spent more than $7 million on a failed campaign against U.S. Senator Cory Gardner (R) in 2014. He poured at least $2 million more into Colorado politics in 2016, spending big on the presidential election and another failed campaign to seize control of the Colorado state legislature.
For years, national anti-oil and gas groups have attempted a hostile takeover of Colorado politics. They have tried to turn Democrats and Republicans against one of the state’s most important economic sectors — an industry that provides energy for every business and every household across Colorado, not to mention thousands upon thousands of jobs.
There’s nothing wrong with a vigorous debate over where, when and how we get the energy needed to run our households, businesses and the broader economy. But too often, the debate over energy policy is falsely portrayed as an all-or-nothing, zero-sum game.
My first real experience writing about politics was in the Deep South — Mississippi to be precise. Southern politicians are famous for their expressions and sayings, but these words of wisdom have always stuck with me: “In politics, nothing is ever as good as it seems, and nothing is ever as bad as it seems.”
National environmental groups have a First Amendment right to campaign at any level of government they choose – federal, state or local – just as the business community, energy workers and regular citizens have free-speech rights to oppose these campaigns.
News values are used by reporters and editors to determine which events to cover and how much prominence to give them. They include things like impact, timeliness, proximity and the element of surprise. But in politics, there’s one news value that dominates: Conflict.
After the failure of statewide anti-fracking ballot measures in Colorado last year, national activist groups are regrouping at the local level. This is history repeating. Several years ago, the push for a statewide oil and gas ban started with local campaigns, led by Washington, D.C.-based Food & Water Watch and other out-of-state groups.
Today, the activists are using local governments once again to win statewide attention. This time, they are trying harder to conceal their national ties and portray their lobbying as authentic and spontaneous. But if you know where to look, it’s clear these revamped local campaigns are just as contrived as ever.
Take the anti-oil and gas campaign in Thornton. Officials there are debating new local restrictions on oil and gas development, including wider drilling setbacks than state law allows.
The state attorney general’s office recently warned Thornton officials about the proposed regulations, according to ColoradoPolitics.com. In a letter to the city, assistant attorney general Kyle Davenport cited the Colorado Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling on local and state authority over oil and gas. In that landmark case, the court said a local ordinance “that authorizes what state law forbids or that forbids what state law authorizes” is preempted and will be struck down.
Even so, Thornton officials seem unfazed by the potential for litigation. Perhaps they are getting different legal advice, but if so, where is that legal advice coming from?
Both groups have close financialand political ties to Tom Steyer, the anti-oil and gas billionaire from California. In 2016, Conservation Colorado endorsed an anti-fracking ballot measure that would – you guessed it – legalize local energy bans. “When national politics are daunting, it’s time to back to the basics: Organizing local support,” the group said last year.
Were Thornton taxpayers told about this? Do they know their oil and gas attorney sits on the board of an anti-oil and gas group? Do they know that expensive legal battles between local officials, state regulators and the energy industry play right into the hands of the environmental lobby?
Are Thornton officials being advised – or lobbied – by their own lawyer?
So that’s the inside game. Let’s examine the outside game.
“I’ll take care of any responses and questions … and Food & Water Watch can do the heavy lifting in terms of calling folks,” he told activists recently while distributing campaign flyers under the Facebook pseudonym “Greg Charles.”
Food & Water Watch also sponsored an activist training session with Josh Joswick of Earthworks to “build power at the local level.” Joswick has called the campaign against energy development a “back-alley fight,” urging his fellow activists to “fight it any way you can,” including with local regulations.
Eichhorn also testified in favor of Thornton’s proposed regulations last month, without disclosing his role with a national group that wants to “ban fracking everywhere.” He wasn’t alone.
National environmental groups have a First Amendment right to lobby and campaign at any level of government they choose, of course. But let’s be realistic about who’s really running these local campaigns, and what they really want.