Republican candidates for governor vigorously defended Colorado’s oil and gas operators on Wednesday, including Cynthia Coffman who said she has worked on behalf of the industry as Colorado’s sitting attorney general.
Walker Stapleton, the current state treasurer, said a key reason he’s in the race is because he fears fossil fuels are under attack by Democrats.
“This is going to be an absolute front-and-center issue in this fall election,” said Doug Robinson, a retired investment banker and first-time candidate. “It’s not more regulation that’s the answer.”
The remarks came at a breakfast forum sponsored by the Colorado Business Roundtable that included Coffman, Stapleton, Robinson and businessman Victor Mitchell.
All four said they oppose requiring drilling companies to set their rigs back 2,500 feet from homes and schools, which could be a potential ballot question for voters in November. All also oppose giving local governments more authority over state drilling regulations, and none of them said they support raising severance tax money from oil and gas companies to generate funds for water conservation. When a moderator asked if they supported raising renewable energy standards above the state’s current 30 percent mark, no hands went up.
Coffman, who joined the Republican primary late and plans to go through the party’s grassroots caucus-assembly process to get on the ballot, said no one has “stepped up and done more on behalf of the oil and gas industry than I have as attorney general.” Coffman has accepted about $47,000 from people associated with the oil and gas industry, with $21,000 of it flowing into her current campaign for governor, according to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Stronger Colorado Ahead, a Super PAC-style group supporting her candidacy, according to The Denver Post, has so far raised $157,000 from four people, three of whom work in the “mining/energy” industry, according to public disclosures.
With Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper in office, Coffman said she has had to step into the breach when it comes to protecting oil and gas interests. For instance, when Hickenlooper balked at appealing a court ruling that would require the state’s oil and gas regulator to put public health, safety and welfare first when considering development rather than trying to strike a balance between that and drilling interests, Coffman pursued the appeal anyway.
“This can flip on its head the way that oil and gas has made decisions and whether now public health and environment and public safety has to come before any drilling can be done,” Coffman told the room of business leaders, calling the ruling a “treacherous standard” for Colorado’s future.
In contrast, multiple Democrats running for governor, including Cary Kennedy, Mike Johnston, Jared Polis, Noel Ginsburg, and Erik Underwood told The Colorado Independent they believe the mission of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission should be changed to put health and safety first. Democratic Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, also running for governor, said she would address health and environmental concerns “as they arise.” Lynne has accepted more campaign contributions— about $9,500— in the Democratic primary from people associated with the oil-and-gas industry than the other candidates, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Kennedy, who is not taking corporate PAC money or contributions from lobbyists, has the second-highest with about $3,000, though her campaign notes about $1,000 of it came from someone linked to oil and gas who is now retired. Ginsburg took about $2,500, and Johnston, who is also not taking PAC money took about $2,300. Polis, not taking PAC money and who is voluntarily limiting contributions to $100, took that much from people associated with oil-and-gas interests.
Stapleton, who has so far raised the most money in the GOP primary and was scheduled to attend a Texas fundraiser with his cousin George W. Bush the following day, said one of the primary reasons he is running for governor is because he feels Colorado’s energy industry is “under assault like never before in this election cycle.”
The state treasurer bashed plans by Polis and Johnston to get the state on 100 percent renewable energy by 2040, saying he fears the only way to do that is by subsidizing alternative forms of energy.
“Recently I have been disappointed with the current administration not standing up against local communities who have decided to universally ban fracking,” Stapleton said. (Local communities do not have such power. After residents in two cities voted to thwart fracking in their communities, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled municipalities do not have the authority to ban fracking. Still, Broomfield voters recently passed a measure to allow more local control over drilling in their community.) Stapleton said he believes fracking can be done safely, and communities should be reminded about what severance taxes do for them. Stapleton has taken about $73,000 from people associated with the oil and gas industry, about $14,000 of which has landed in his current campaign account, according to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Better Colorado Now, a Super Pac-style group supporting his candidacy has taken in at least $50,000 from people who work in the “mining/energy” industry, according to public disclosures.
For his part, Robinson, who is Mitt Romney’s nephew, made the issue personal, telling the crowd of more than 100 in a ballroom at History Colorado about his son whom he sent to a private liberal arts college in California.
“He came back with these liberal ideas and one of them was that fracking was bad,” Robinson said. So Robinson got his kid a job on a project in a gas field. “The long and the short of it,” Robinson said, “is he came back and said, ‘Dad, they’re not polluting, they’re doing OK.’”
Asked by a moderator to address tensions between homeowners and drill operators, Robinson said he got a bird’s-eye view of it when a member of his campaign finance committee took him on a helicopter ride over Weld County.
“What you do see is that the oil and gas fields that have been there for a long time are increasingly being encroached on by suburbia [as it] continues to grow in those areas,” Robinson said, adding that the next governor should make clear rules about where residential development can grow and where it can’t. Robinson has taken about $6,700 from people associated with the oil and gas industry, according to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Building Colorado’s Future, a Super Pac-style group supporting his candidacy, has taken at least $12,000 from people associated with “mining/energy,” according to public disclosures.
Only Mitchell, who is spending $3 million of his own money in the race and left a flurry of campaign literature on each of the breakfast tables at the event, did not offer a full embrace of the oil and gas industry. Instead, the entrepreneur who served one term as a lawmaker, took a different tone, saying he was “deeply disappointed” about the way the industry handled the fallout from an April home explosion in Firestone caused by an abandoned energy company gas line.
“They should have done everything possible to take ownership of it,” including offering significant compensation to the victims, Mitchell said. “They are still finger pointing today as to who is culpable in that disaster.” Mitchell has not accepted any campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry, according to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
But Mitchell said oil and gas companies do offer some of the best-paying jobs in Colorado and fossil fuels are the most reliable form of energy. He called tension among homeowners and drillers a “legitimate concern.” Finding the right balance will be difficult for the next governor, he said, adding that his negotiating skills as a businessman would help him.
“This is going to be tough work,” he said. “Make no mistake about it.”