Hickenlooper works the middle, his sweet spot, at oil-and-gas industry lunch

Author: John Tomasic - March 10, 2017 - Updated: March 10, 2017

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper at the Capitol in Denver.

In an appearance at an energy industry event on Thursday, Gov. John Hickenlooper was a study in moderation, fielding questions on hot-button topics that have charged state politics for all of his time in office. He put on a kind of clinic in how to walk a center line on the issues, even when leveling a cautionary note against the urge in the era of one-party Republican rule in Washington to steamroll long-targeted rules and regulations on the fossil fuel industries.

“In the next few months, how do we keep the momentum moving forward… toward a future of cleaner air and cleaner water and cheaper energy?” he asked. “Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater and not swing too far one way or the other, to where there’s resentment and retribution and payback. I hope we don’t descend to a place where it’s us versus them and into the very bitter kinds of discussions that that can bring.”

The lunch event was hosted by the Colorado Petroleum Council. Guests in the packed conference room at the downtown History Colorado Center included industry executives, lawmakers and lobbyists. The on-stage guests in conversation with Hickenlooper included Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard and CBS 4 political reporter Shaun Boyd, who acted as moderator.

Boyd asked the governor to comment on the legal battle pitting state Attorney General Cynthia Coffman against the Boulder County Commissioners over the county’s moratorium on new drilling operations. Hickenlooper said he could well understand the positions taken on both sides of the suit.

He could see the legitimacy in Coffman arguing that it’s in large part the responsibility of the state and not municipalities to regulate oil and gas extraction. He also said he sympathizes with the motivations of the commissioners. “People want to enjoy their homes” free of nearby industrial activity, he said.

The conflict comes, he explained — as he has many times before — because mineral rights owners want to make the most of their property as well. The tension running between the two interests is the place where the conversation has to begin, he said.

He was confident Boulder County would soon “come out with rules that are based in that conversation” and that address the needs of both sides.

What about the expanded operations hydraulic fracturing or fracking technology has made possible today, Boyd asked, where 20 or 40 or more wells are drilled at a single site?

“How many is too many wells on a well pad?” she said.

“Again, I understand people are concerned,” said Hickenlooper. “But more wells on one pad mean less well pads on lots of little sites around the city. I don’t think that’s what you want.”

Heads nodded in the audience. Boyd turned to the Petroleum Institute’s Gerard. The conversation moved on.

Hickenlooper has presided over a shifting and often fractious era that has seen oil and gas extraction boom alongside the rise of the renewable energy sector and steadily increasing concern among residents over threats posed by fossil fuels to a natural environment that grows more apparently fragile every day. He has had to respond as governor to historic drought, wild fires and floods.

Hickenlooper, now a national Democratic Party figure, has never wavered in his commitment to engage with the fossil fuel industries. He prides himself on walking a middle ground based on practical compromise — the “Colorado way,” he calls it — even as he follows a sometimes winding road toward his stated goal of winning ever cleaner air and water for the state.

Hickenlooper has defended the industry as it has moved into Front Range towns and commuter neighborhoods — some of which, he will point out, were built in recent years as the state’s booming population spread across fields that had been targeted by mineral rights holders decades ago.

But he has also seen industry methane control and capture regulations put in place that are a model for the nation — hard-won regulations that have boosted residents’ health and benefitted the industry. And he stood by the state’s own version of the national Obama-era Clean Power Plan when conservative groups and politicians backed by fossil-fuel interests launched a full-press legal, legislative, and public relations campaign to thwart any such national or state efforts.

Hickenlooper told the crowd on Thursday that he keeps a running tally of the days that remain in his term as governor. He checked his phone on stage. He said he had 669 days to go and that there is a list of things he wants to accomplish in that time.

One of the things is to broker an agreement between local residents and oil and gas companies, an agreement, he said, that “gives local communities a bigger voice and that still respects the property rights of mineral owners.” He is in loose talks for now with western state governors on the topic.

“I really want to get them together and really roll up our sleeves and get a comprehensive western policy, one that gets everyone to a place where they feel better about it.”

John Tomasic

John Tomasic

John Tomasic is a senior political reporter for The Colorado Statesman covering the Colorado Legislature.