In long run-up to 2012, Gardner draws heat for anti-environmental record

Freshman Republican Congressman Cory Gardner weathered a drawn out if ultimately not-close Tea Party caucus battle last year and rode the Republican wave to victory over Democrat Betsy Markey.* Less than a year later, he’s again navigating the increasingly rocky electoral waters of Colorado’s sprawling Fourth District.

Bipartisan participants in a town hall two weeks ago assailed him over free-trade job loss and GOP-proposed cuts to Medicare. And last week Fort Collins-based Clean Water Action launched a campaign arguing that Gardner’s brief voting record in Washington establishes him as perhaps the most anti-environmental member of Congress in the state’s history and therefore deeply out of step with the district he represents.

“This is a conservative district but not an anti-environment district,” Clean Water Action Director Gary Wockner told the Colorado Independent. Wockner says his group has knocked on 25,000 doors in the district since January to draw attention to Gardner’s “aggressively anti-environment” positions, he said, pointing in particular to Gardner’s repeat votes in favor of diluting the forty-year-old Clean Water Act.

“There is no outcry to attack the Clean Water Act,” Wockner said. “Nobody is talking about the Clean Water Act up here. It’s a well-established law that forces polluters to clean up after themselves. No business or organization or any other entity I know of here sees the Clean Water Act as causing trouble. This is coming from Gardner alone.”

Gardner’s office didn’t respond to attempts to contact him for comment.

‘Strong environmental safeguards’

The release sent out by Clean Water Action builds on a report brought out by Henry Waxman and Ed Markey, Democratic leaders of the congressional Energy and Commerce Committee, which details efforts by this year’s GOP-led Congress to dismantle longstanding efforts to curb pollution, protect public lands and address climate change.

Waxman and Markey looked at 110 votes taken since January in the House, including votes to “block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating mercury and other hazardous air pollutants emitted from cement plants; to relax emission requirements for offshore oil and gas activities; to stop the EPA from establishing new water quality standards or enforcing existing ones; and to prevent the EPA from protecting streams from the effects of mountaintop-removal mining.” 

Legislation targeting the Clean Water Act and supported by Gardner, sometimes on voice votes, include, for example, H.R. 1, the 2011 Continuing Appropriations Bill, which would block the EPA from revoking Clean Water Act permits for bad actors; H.R. 872, the Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act, which would prevent the agency from requiring Clean Water Act permits for companies that spray pesticides into navigable waters; H.R. 2018, the Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act, which would block the EPA from establishing new Clean Water Act standards; and H.R. 2018, the Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act, which would limit government authority to establish water quality standards for chemical and other pollutants.

To be fair, Gardner voted with his Republican colleagues in the Colorado delegation on most all of these bills and the defense he makes of his record matches with arguments made by Republicans across the country– mainly that environmental regulations have become too burdensome on business.

It’s also not surprising that, given the partisan divide on energy that characterizes U.S. politics today, that in a recession marked by anemic job growth, Gardner champions the oil and gas sector as key to rebooting the economy. Most notably, he introduced the Jobs and Energy Permitting Act, which aims to open up water off the Alaska coastline to drilling.

“One thing I can attest to is that a majority of Coloradans support increased energy production,” Gardner said as a way to explain why a congressman from Colorado would spearhead the move to open up land in Alaska. “Yes, we expect and deserve strong environmental safeguards, but we don’t want those safeguards to be exploited into an excuse to shut down the energy industry.”

Rhetoric and reality

Gardner’s critics suggest he is at best misguided in these efforts. No one is looking to “shut down the energy industry,” they say, for instance. Oil and gas companies have leased land nationwide that they have yet to make productive and they hold thousands of unused drilling permits for sites all across the mountain west, for example. In that light, the push to open up vulnerable new territory seems premature.

Critics similarly point to lessons offered up in Gardner’s own district, where stiffer state regulations on oil and gas production put in place by Democratic Governor Bill Ritter three years ago and attacked repeatedly by Republicans as “job killers” have not discouraged major new oil and gas drilling. On the contrary, Larimer and Weld County, for example, have hosted a drilling boom atop the Niobrara formation that has dotted the northern reaches of the district with dozens of new oil and gas wells and will see a great deal more drilled in years to come.

Critics also say that, although Gardner boasts an “all of the above” approach to energy production, he seems intent not to seize upon the great long-term economic opportunity presented by Colorado’s burgeoning clean-energy sector, which the laws he has voted for would set back considerably.

In the release accompanying the Waxman report, Massachusetts Congressman Markey likens House Republicans like Gardner to new-energy assassins.

“President Theodore Roosevelt said ‘A vote is like a rifle,’ and House Republicans have one pointed right at the heart of America’s clean energy future.” (See the list of related legislation here, pdf.)

Campaign finances

Clean Water Action’s Wockner believes Gardner draws encouragement in his anti-environmental stances from his financial backers. Oil and gas companies gave nearly $180,000 to Gardner’s campaign in 2010, and a Greeley Tribune investigation found that donations from oil and gas and mining interests amount at this point to more than 10 percent of Gardner’s 2012 election funds.

“Mainstream citizens of the Fourth District are seeing the economy, the public’s health, and the environment endangered by Rep. Gardner’s votes, while the oil and gas industry – which is having record multi-billion dollar profits quarter after quarter – is getting richer and richer,” Wockner wrote in last week’s release.

The opposition

Dispatches from Washington like the Waxman report and campaigns in the Fourth District like that undertaken by Clean Water Action will feed the efforts of Gardner’s 2012 election opponent, Longmont resident and state Senate President Brandon Shaffer.

“Gardner has sided with anti-environmental radicals time and time again,” Shaffer told the Colorado Independent. “We’re all in favor of streamlining red tape, but people understand there has to be balance.”

Shaffer believes Gardner’s record in Congress demonstrates that he doesn’t weigh the upside and downside of individual bills but that he reacts instead according to ideological positions. He says Gardner is against regulation in an indiscriminate way simply because he has made up his mind that government regulation as a generalized concept is bad.

“Coloradans know that natural gas, for example, is key to the economy,” Shaffer said to make his point, “but there is also a strong desire here to maintain clean drinking water and clean rivers. Clean water is a top priority in this state. I’d say it’s the biggest environmental concern.”

Given that mining and drilling compete with major outdoor tourism in Colorado and that Centennial State culture has long been tied to appreciation for the majestic mountain landscape, Shaffer said lawmakers here are intensely aware of the push and pull between developing natural resources and protecting the environment. He said many of the regulations in place have been hammered out at the capitol in Denver and that effective Colorado legislators learn how to look for balance.

“In writing regulations, we have to work in a business-friendly way,” he said. “It’s the difference in working off of talking points and believing in what you say.”

[ Top image via Flickr user ColoradoFarmBureau ]

*Edit Note: In the end, Gardner’s would-be challengers for the GOP nomination in 2010 faded quickly for lack of money and experience. Throughout the spring and summer, though, Gardner appeared on stage and stumps alongside Tom Lucero, Diggs Brown and Dean Madere, all of the candidates testing Tea Party movement strength. Hat tip to R.M.