Even as Hickenlooper sets to announce candidacy, McInnis continues campaign against Ritter drilling regs

GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott McInnis will continue to pound on Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter’s more environmentally stringent oil-and-gas drilling regulations despite the fact that Ritter has pulled out of the race, according to McInnis spokesman Sean Duffy.

Hickenlooper and McInnis
Hickenlooper and McInnis

“Whichever Democrat is chosen [to run for governor]-– whether he’s chosen by the Democratic Party or the White House — [he or she will] have to defend the Democratic record on jobs or discuss how they believe the Democrats have been wrong,” Duffy told the Colorado Independent Monday. “So that’s a conversation they can have amongst themselves.”

Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper tops a long list of possible Democratic replacements for Ritter, and is reportedly set to announce his candidacy today. The Denver mayor, who reportedly received a call from President Obama last week urging him to run, obviously has no real record on the controversial drilling regulations.

But that won’t stop McInnis, a former six-term congressman from the Western Slope and the frontrunner for the GOP nomination, from making the debatable argument that the new state regulations that went into effect last spring – and are among the toughest in the nation – have in part led to a natural gas slowdown that has cost Colorado jobs and revenue.

“What [McInnis] says a lot is the rules were the best jobs program in four years for Pennsylvania,” Duffy said, alluding to a gas boom in that state’s Marcellus Shale. “The exporting of jobs to Pennsylvania is obviously something he’s very concerned about and he’s trying to recoup some of those jobs as key to economic recovery.”

Pennsylvania myth; Colorado reality

But while Pennsylvania did see a huge surge in natural gas drilling permits in 2009, the number issued is still dwarfed by Colorado’s permitting activity, which despite the new regulations remained ahead of other major gas-producing states in the Rocky Mountain region, according to a story in Tuesday’s Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.

And oil and gas companies operating in Pennsylvania are seeing increasing levels of regulation, including skyrocketing permit fees and tougher environmental rules dictating the disposal of wastewater associated with drilling. Concerns about water quality in the Keystone State now mirror what environmentalists have been saying for years about the potential impacts of the Western Slope drilling boom on the fragile Colorado River.

Political observers in heavily drilled Garfield County – home to McInnis’s old hometown of Glenwood Springs – say any Democrat will do when it comes to mitigating the impacts of the ongoing natural gas boom.

“The prospect that McInnis could win and put [state Sen. Minority Leader and former McInnis staffer] Josh Penry in charge of the Department of Natural Resources is going to drive Gas Patch activists and environmentalists to support Hickenlooper’s – or any Democratic – gubernatorial campaign,” said Leslie Robinson, an oil and gas activist based in Rifle.

Robinson praised Ritter’s tenacity in pushing through the new regulations, which give more weight to air and water quality, public safety and wildlife habitat when state regulators are reviewing drilling permit applications. Overall, surveys show support for increased regulation of the industry on the Western Slope.

“Hickenlooper doesn’t have to stick his head out too far beyond, ‘I’m going to see how the new drilling regs work,’” Robinson said. “People forget the new rules are only six months old and have not been tested or barely practiced.”

That’s a sentiment echoed by some in McInnis’s own party.

“The rules that were put in place are in existence and we need to see at this point in time where those rules work and where they don’t work,” state Sen. Al White told the Colorado Independent last week.

“If [the regs are] too pinchy in some spots, then we can make appropriate adjustments,” added White, whose district includes much of GarCo’s “Gas Patch. “The industry spent a lot of time worrying about the new rules and now it’s time to find out what the realities are of additional costs of doing business for the industry and see if we can make changes as necessary.”

New drilling projects; old election campaigns

No major comprehensive drilling plans (CDPs) have been tested under the new regs, but the first might be a proposal by Denver-based Antero Resources to drill up to 200 new wells in the unincorporated GarCo community of Battlement Mesa, where citizens are rallying to mitigate air and water quality impacts and increase setbacks for drilling rigs.

A 501c4 nonprofit group called Western Heritage, funded in part by McInnis and the chairman of Antero Resources, spent $20,000 advertising in support of Republican county commissioners John Martin and Mike Samson – both of whom won in a highly controversial 2008 race that saw unprecedented outside spending for a local campaign.

“Local Democratic Party members fully expect county races to be impacted by 527 and 501c4 organizations [political groups named for sections of the tax code], similar to the ones that McInnis was involved with in the 2008 elections,” Robinson said, referring to a re-election bid by lone Democratic county commissioner Trési Houpt, who’s also a Ritter appointee to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

“However, the GarCo Dems have one advantage in the 2010 election — they live in McInnis’ old hometown. There are many personal ‘Scooter’ stories, gossip, and rumors floating around, some not too flattering. Up here, his campaign may spend as much time putting out fires as trying to start them.”

Duffy said the GarCo commissioner’s race isn’t even on the radar of the McInnis campaign these days.

“Haven’t even given that a thought,” Duffy said. “As you might have noticed it’s been a little hectic the last couple of weeks, but as far as I know we haven’t delved in there yet. Obviously, he’ll support Republicans.”

Asked how McInnis, as a partner in the Denver law firm Hogan & Hartson, which does a considerable amount of work for oil and gas firms, avoids being labeled a shill for the industry, Duffy said McInnis has also worked on renewable energy projects for the firm; as a congressman helped create national parks; and uses solar power at the sheep camp on his Grand Junction ranch.

“It’s a political year,” Duffy said. “With some of the folks, if he walked on water, they’d say the guy can’t swim.”

* Image note/request: Scott McInnis recently updated his look. The Colorado Independent asks any readers in possession of digi-snaps of the new McInnis to please send them to us at the tips address below with whatever name you would like credited.

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