Hickenlooper backs away from Ritter drilling regs; still blasted by McInnis camp

Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper reportedly almost lost a finger working as a petroleum geologist in the gas patches of Colorado’s Western Slope in the 1980s. Now, according to some environmentalists, as the state’s Democratic Party gubernatorial candidate Hickenlooper is in effect giving the finger to supporters of tougher new drilling regulations that went into effect last spring.

John Hickenlooper
John Hickenlooper

“[Oil and gas workers will] recognize that I’m coming from a very different place than Gov. Ritter,” Hickenlooper told reporters in Denver Friday, referring to Ritter’s two-year push for the new regs, which give more weight to maintaining air and water quality, public safety and wildlife habitat in the drilling permit process.

Hickenlooper, who announced his candidacy last week, will likely garner some support for his stance on the Western Slope, where GOP front-runner Scott McInnis– a former six-term congressman– has been hammering on the Ritter regulations as a “job killer” and painting Hickenlooper as Denver-centric.

But Hickenlooper also will discover that there’s much more support for a measured approach to drilling than he remembers from the 1980s, a time when there were far fewer people living in the arid and ecologically fragile high desert. An influx of residents– both retirees and recreation enthusiasts– seeking the healthy mountain lifestyle has led to increasing conflict with the extractive industries. And surveys show growing support for increased regulation.

“I think the biggest problem wasn’t necessarily where we ended up with the rules. It was how we got there,” Hickenlooper said Friday, according to the Durango Herald, which prompted McInnis spokesman Sean Duffy to blast the mayor for not speaking up during the highly contentious process that resulted in the passage of the new regs.

“We’ve had what in Scott’s view has been a targeting, if you will, perhaps even a demonization, of oil and gas,” Duffy told the Colorado Independent last week. “And that has resulted in part– obviously you can’t blame it all on this– but the rules being so unbalanced and really punitive have driven jobs away. Not just West Slope, but also Weld and Larimer’s got a lot of natural gas up there.”

Proponents of the regulations argue that it was the global recession and a surplus of stored gas that led to the dramatic slowdown of Colorado’s latest gas boom. They say increased pipeline capacity, a cold winter back East and slightly improved prices are already leading to a turnaround. Even some Republicans, including state Sen. Al White, say the rules may need to be tweaked but that there’s no way to know how to tweak them until some drilling plans actually go through the new process.

Even McInnis is taking a more measured approach than his opponent for the GOP nomination, Evergreen businessman Dan Maes, who last week toured the Western Slope and promised a scorched-earth policy as it relates to Ritter’s oil and gas policies. Indeed, McInnis looks circumspect by comparison.

“[McInnis’s] view would be that early in his term– granted you have [Colorado Oil and Gas Commission] members whose terms have to run– but his view would be to start the conversation on what are the best practices, what changes do we need from the status quo to reflect best practices, particularly in terms of the environment, but at the same time balance that with trying to return to a jobs focus,” Duffy said.

Maes, on the other hand, promises to gut the new rules and sack anyone who remotely empathizes with the conservationist viewpoint, which means most Coloradans.

“On Day One [in the governor’s office], we walk into the COGCC board meeting and we hand pink-slips to every environmental liberal on that board and we tell them to go home,” Maes told a gathering of Republicans last week, according to the Glenwood Springs Post Independent.

Ritter not only helped push through the new COGCC regs while tirelessly championing his “New Energy Economy,” he also revamped the makeup of the state board that oversees drilling permits and rules enforcement, increasing the number of COGCC board members and requiring greater diversity than the previous makeup, which leaned heavily toward industry interests.

According to the Durango Herald, Hickenlooper tempered his statements Friday by describing himself as a “strong environmentalist [who] thinks it’s important to protect the land as well as the industry,” which sounds a lot like what Ritter was trying to do the last four years. Ritter took office after the eight years former oil and gas lobbyist Bill Owens occupied the governor’s mansion.

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