Watching Colorado’s Republican candidates this year wrestle to answer questions about climate change has the feeling of a last gasp.
At least in debates hosted in the Front Range metro areas where elections in the state are decided, candidates’ stumbling assertions about a lack of familiarity with global-warming science or about faith that such a grand planetary issue must be decided by “larger forces,” as candidate for governor Bob Beauprez put it, have drawn sighs and jeers.
In the race to represent Colorado’s 6th Congressional District, climate change so far has been a side issue, and understandably so.
Incumbent Republican Mike Coffman is running against former state Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff in one of the tightest House contests in the nation. The district Coffman represents was redrawn in 2011 and is now evenly divided between party voters. The mostly urban and suburban district is home to many of the state’s immigrants who live in working-class Aurora. That city is the site of the 2012 movie theater shooting spree that shocked the nation. Gun control issues have been big in the congressional race, as have issues tied to immigration reform, women’s reproductive rights, jobs and the minimum wage.
Coffman and Romanoff disagree sharply on how to approach each of those issues and they’ve articulated those positions — and repeated them often — in a series of debates.
But given the traction climate change is drawing in Colorado’s U.S. Senate race — in which Republican Congressman Cory Gardner is running against incumbent Mark Udall — and in the governor’s race — where Beauprez, a former congressman, is trying to unseat incumbent John Hickenlooper — the similarly stark contrast between Coffman and Romanoff on climate change may yet prove significant.
On Thursday, Coffman and Romanoff are scheduled to again face off in a debate hosted by CBS4 and public TV station Channel 12. The question of climate change is likely to arise.
Coffman didn’t handle the issue very adeptly in a debate last month hosted by The Denver Post.
“Do you believe humans are contributing significantly to climate change?” asked Post editor and moderator Chuck Plunkett
“Um, no,” Coffman said.
“Do you think we can reverse climate change?”
“Don’t know… Um, no.”
The crowd was uneasy with his answers and Coffman wanted to elaborate.
“On the climate change issue, I just think that the science is not quite settled. Do humans have impact? Yes. Do I know how much of an impact it has? I don’t know. But we have to do everything possible to bring down carbon. But sometimes I worry that if we go too far, what happens is we push manufacturing jobs overseas to a country like China that has no environmental rules… so I think there has to be a balance.”
Coffman’s tentativeness provided an easy opening for Romanoff.
“We’re never going to take the action we need to address climate change if we refuse to recognize there’s a problem,” he said. “Congressman Coffman made it clear tonight, he does not recognize this problem despite the overwhelming scientific consensus about the origins of climate change.”
Mike Bowman, a longtime alternative energy advocate from Wray, Colorado, a senior fellow at sustainable development organization Natural Capitalism Solutions volunteers spending half his time in D.C. pressing lawmakers to support biofuels and rural development. He says the waffling Coffman line on climate change is to be expected.
“That’s a caucus line,” he said. “It’s not a thinking argument and it’s not tied to any district.”
Bowman said it’s no mystery why the Republican candidates in Colorado all sound the same this year when they concede that climate change may be happening, but then argue that, because they just don’t know for sure, they can’t support any related policy that might tamp down jobs or the economy.
Like many others have been saying for years, he said the problem is all the industry money. “It’s an everyday problem in my work. It comes from all sides. On every issue. Fuel efficiency standards come under fire. New technologies and fuels — no single additional gallon of biofuel can make it into the pipeline without a fight.”
Bowman said Colorado Republicans are doing a particular disservice to the state by toeing the party line on climate change.
“We have the geography to really lead in the biofuel sector,” he said. “Colorado’s real strength is the network we have — great research minds, pioneering tech entrepreneurs. We have the people, the institutes and the resources to move ahead by leaps and bounds.”
But Colorado is also home to a booming oil and gas industry and Colorado lawmakers on both sides of the aisle receive a lot of money from industry donors.
Coffman is high on the list of oil-and-gas-backed candidates — second only to Gardner, an ardent champion of the industry who represents the Front Range gas patch in his 4th Congressional District. Coffman’s 6th District sees little drilling by comparison, yet he has taken in more than $500,000 in industry donations over the years, according to Open Secrets, a Center for Responsive Politics campaign-finance-tracking research organization and website.
A quick look at MapLight, another Center for Responsive Politics website, shows Coffman routinely receives checks from oil-industry donors in the weeks before he casts votes on bills that will affect business.
This summer, on June 25th, for example, Coffman voted for HR 6, a bill sponsored by Gardner to allow natural gas exports to World Trade Organization countries. Coffman raised more than $8,500 within 15 days of the vote from industry donors, including a maximum $2,600 donation from Oasis Petroleum COO Taylor Reid.
In July of 2012, Coffman voted for HR 6082, sponsored by Republican Rep. Doc Hastings from Washington and aimed at putting a more industry friendly rule in place for offshore drilling. According to MapLight ,Coffman raised more than $15,000 in the weeks before he cast that vote, with donations pouring in from companies such as Newfield Exploration, Western Energy Alliance, Anadarko Petroleum as well as the American Petroleum Institute.
The list is long of similar oil-and-gas company donations made to Coffman before he voted for industry-friendly bills.
The telling way rows of donor names in the MapLight database line up with congressional votes on bills tied to the industries the donors work for won’t shock anyone following contemporary U.S. politics — even if it’s dispiriting to individual voters. The database lists make a strong case, not for charges of direct corruption, but certainly of influence that would be difficult for any individual to match, especially where the endlessly wealthy oil and gas industry is concerned.
A study by biofuels lobby group Fuels America on the effect of the 2005 federal Renewable Fuel Standard attempts to answer charges that such government intervention in the market “kills jobs.” It reports that the law has generated hundreds of lower-carbon biofuel-related jobs and tens of millions of dollars in wages in Colorado’s 6th District.
Gabe Elsner, executive director at the Energy and Policy Institute in DC, a group that watchdogs industry lobbying, told the Independent in the spring that the money and lobbyists tied to pro-corporate groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC are just buying the industry time and attempting to prolong a near-monopoly on the energy marketplace.
“It’s unfortunate that we have allowed the industry for so long to frame the debate, where we’re supposed to choose between jobs and the environment,” said Bowman. “Renewable energy, alternative energy, they have always been a plus-plus for the economy.”