Early look: Where Jared Polis and Walker Stapleton stand on some issues facing rural and western Colorado

The political realm has been consumed lately by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jared Polis’s decision to skip the Western Slope Club 20 business group debate, an early September event that has traditionally served as the launch into Colorado’s general election campaign frenzy.

Plenty have lamented the move, with The Denver Post’s editorial board calling it “a disgrace” and The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel devoting front-page coverage to Polis’s decision to stand by it. Polis has shrugged the criticism off, saying Club 20 isn’t a stand-in for rural or western Colorado writ-large, that he’ll be debating in Grand Junction, and has campaigned in the area plenty.

For its part, Club 20 has rejected Polis’s offer to send Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne as his surrogate. So, that’s the politics. Let’s talk policy. Club 20 represents rural Colorado, the Western Slope, a swath of the state that adds some of the red to the predominant blue of the Front Range, giving Colorado its purple political hue.

In 2014, when Gov. John Hickenlooper faced off against Republican Bob Beauprez on the Club 20 stage, issues that arose included fracking, federal lands, healthcare and water.

So where are Polis and GOP rival Walker Stapleton on energy?

On the fracking front, there’s a pressure-cooker set to simmer in Colorado as a potential ballot measure looms, the industry appears to take a wait-and-see approach to Polis’s positions, and Stapleton makes his support for the oil-and-gas industry a tenet of his campaign.

The state’s residential housing growth in some areas is clashing with a drilling boom as some environmentalists are hoping a measure to increase the distance of rigs from homes gets on the November ballot. If passed, the new laws would push current statewide setback limits from 500 feet to 2,500. Doing so, supporters say, will better protect neighborhoods from health and safety impacts of nearby fracking. The industry and its allies point out that Colorado’s oil-and-gas regulatory agency says that if the measure passes, 80 percent of non-federal land in the state would off limits, effectively banning fracking.

On the Western Slope, drilling has been on the decline since its boom about a decade ago, but the federal Bureau of Land Management in March approved a 26,000-acre project to allow it in White Water basin near Grand Junction. The move came “as part of the Trump administration’s America First Energy Plan, the BLM said in announcing the decision,” The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reported.

In a twist that reflects the political minefield of energy policy in Colorado, Democrats Polis and Hickenlooper both oppose the setback ballot measure, while the state Democratic Party supports it.

During the final gubernatorial debate in the Democratic primary, Polis said he didn’t think 500 feet is enough distance from drill rigs to homes and said he supports 1,500 to 2,000 feet in cases where there isn’t a surface usage agreement in place, meaning a contract with a landowner and a drilling company.  “We need additional setbacks statewide which should be guided by science, health and safety-first, objective data,” he said, adding it’s important to keep in mind the rights of home and landowners.

In 2014, Polis put his money behind a ballot measure that would require drilling rigs be 2,000 feet from homes, but later pulled his support as part of a remarkable compromise involving Hickenlooper, the oil-and-gas-industry, lawmakers and others.

Stapleton, who often says one of the main reasons he is running for governor is to protect the state’s oil-and-gas industry, points to Polis’s ballot-measure history in his own campaign. “I think it is beneficial to have a governor who the industry doesn’t mistrust,” he says. He also said he is disappointed by the Hickenlooper administration not challenging communities that pass laws limiting fracking.

Meanwhile, the administration of President Donald Trump wants to open up vast portions of federal land for drilling by private companies, including in Colorado where oil-and-gas companies are experiencing record production levels for their $31 billion industry.

Where can a governor have influence over energy policy anyway?

In Colorado, a governor has freedom and limitations when setting energy policy. A governor can sign executive orders, has oversight over agencies, and appoints members to boards and commissions. A governor can signal legislative priorities, suggest a budget, and, of course, use the bully pulpit and expend political capital how he or she sees fit.

Currently, Colorado has a divided legislature with Democrats controlling the House by a comfortable margin and Republicans running the Senate by one seat. Parallel to the governor’s race is a high-stakes campaign by Democrats to flip the Senate and by Republicans to hold onto power in at least one chamber as a check on one-party rule.

Even if the General Assembly stays divided, the next governor will have an impact on how the state regulates the oil-and-gas industry through his appointments to the nine-member Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which has a dual mission to promote oil and gas development and to regulate that development. The terms of four of these members expire in July 2019, and three in July of 2020.

A governor also appoints all three members to the state’s Public Utilities Commission, but needs the consent of the state Senate. Part of the commission’s mission is regulating how energy companies work with consumers. Because of the way these terms are staggered, Colorado’s next governor will be able to reshape the entire board by 2021, according to PUC spokesman Terry Bote. The governor can also change the board chair at will. Only two of the three, who serve four-year terms, can be members of the same political party.

This is an area where the two candidates clearly diverge. Stapleton wants more oil-and-gas people on these boards, and Polis wants people who would champion his vision of a 100 percent renewable energy grid, at least on the PUC. 

The Polis campaign, through spokeswoman Mara Sheldon, refused to answer questions, however, about what he would like to see in potential candidates to fill these board seats, and whether he is already in talks with any. The campaign also would not respond when asked what messages Polis has conveyed in talks with oil-and-gas industry representatives about how his possible governorship would interact with their business in the state. Instead, Sheldon emailed a statement saying that the voters Polis meets with are most concerned about health care, public school funding and higher wages. “Voters also care about protecting our environment from climate change and creating good-paying green-energy jobs, which is why so many folks are excited about Jared’s plan for 100% renewable energy by 2040.”

As part of his promise to transition Colorado’s electrical grid to 100 percent renewable energy, Polis has said he would make strategic appointments to the PUC board. His website says he would appoint members “who support consumers and renewable energy.”

Stapleton said he would like to see “petroleum engineers” and “people that have experience with the industry” on these boards.  

“I think that having divergent viewpoints is helpful,” Stapleton says. “It creates a robust debate, it helps you think out of the box about things you may not have taken account. And that’s what I would like to see with respect certainly with the oil-and-gas commission and for board appointments across the board for the PUC and everything else that the governor has the ability to make appointments to.”

When it comes to executive orders on energy policy, Hickenlooper made some, such as requiring oil-and-gas operators to test the integrity of flowlines after a home explosion that killed two in Firestone, and one last month requiring cleanup of orphan wells, which can pose environmental and health risks. He also signed one that adopts low-emissions standards for vehicles, a move that joins about a dozen states led by California, and he signed another committing Colorado to the Paris Climate Accord aimed at cutting emissions of greenhouse gases cut by at least 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

Stapleton says he does not agree with Hickenlooper’s clean-car executive order, but would look at the rest on a case-by-case basis. He said, like Polis, that he agrees with the order on orphan wells. Stapleton declined to say whether he would keep or scrap the order on the Paris Climate Accord, but expressed skepticism, saying he was not interested in signing orders “that I believe are political tokenism.”

As for the bully pulpit, a major campaign plank for Polis is making Colorado’s electrical grid run on 100 percent renewable energy by 2040 — 14 years after he would leave office if elected to two full terms. His plan, which he has called “not a top-down mandate,” includes efficiency incentives, and creating special districts, “especially in rural areas,” for renewable energy. His website says he would build on Hickenlooper’s executive orders to “establish policies that account for the costs of carbon to our economy, public health, and environment.”

Stapleton doesn’t talk much about renewable energy, but he says he would like to see more efficiency in water use for fracking by making technological improvements in the drilling process.

“Hopefully if it gets to a standard of being close to 100 percent renewable in the use of water, that would serve everybody especially in Colorado where water is a finite resource,” he says.

Stapleton also says he will roll out “health and environmental standards” that he expects the oil-and-gas industry to meet if he becomes governor that involve standards for emissions and seismic monitoring of wells.

While Stapleton has publicly asked for help in his campaign from oil-and-gas interests, the industry has thus far not gone after Polis with attack ads. Scott Prestige, a spokesman for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, says his group is currently focused on the potential ballot measure to increase setbacks, adding, “everything else falls a distant second place from there.”

He said COGA’s president, Dan Haley, has had conversations with both Polis and Stapleton.

“I would trust that both candidates know significantly the importance of this industry … from the standpoint of economic impact of the jobs and families that work within this industry, you know, over 100,000 employees within our industry providing a nearly $32 billion annual economic impact,” he said.

What about federal lands?

Last year, after Trump signed an executive order requiring the U.S. Department of Interior to review nearly 30 national monuments for potential shrinkage nationwide, a monument in Colorado— Canyons of the Ancients located in Cortez on the Western Slope— was spared.

If he becomes governor, Polis, whose congressional district is more than 60 percent public lands, has said he would push for more protection of federal lands from overzealous development. He has said the state deserves a “seat at the table.”

During a forum with Stapleton, Polis recently told voters he will “stand up to President Trump or any president who tries to carve up or sell off our public lands.” Stapleton said he did not think the federal government should make determinations about national monuments, and said, “I think Utah can make the determinations … that work best for Utah, and Colorado communities should make that determination of what works best for Colorado.” (Utah’s Republican federal lawmakers, conservative groups, and county officials pushed for more private use on federal lands there, and Trump last year announced he would shrink two national monuments in Utah.) Stapleton said at the forum he does not support “simply expanding wilderness” that could deprive rural areas economic opportunities.

Polis wants to create special conservation districts for conservation and recreation, he opposes selling public lands to “the highest bidder” or diminishing them “in any way,” and wants to improve funding for the state parks and wildlife division.

In 2014, during the Club 20 gubernatorial debate, Republican Bob Beauprez said he believed the state should consider taking over federal lands in Colorado altogether. 

“We certainly don’t have the capacity from a budget standpoint to take over federal lands at the state level,” Stapleton told The Colorado Independent in an interview, adding that Colorado should have a “seat at the table” when it comes to determining what happens to its federal lands. He says he supports a multi-use strategy.

Asked by Vail Daily if that means more public lands in Colorado should be opened up for development, including mining and drilling, Stapleton said, “Where it can be done responsibly and safely, there is no reason for the federal government not to develop the mineral resources available to it, because domestic energy security contributes to our national security.”

The two candidates also diverge on a proposed natural gas export facility in Oregon known as Jordon Cove. Republican Walker Stapleton is all in for the project that stalled under the administration of Democratic President Barack Obama and could get up and running under Trump now that different regulators sit on a federal board that could approve it.

“What that means for Colorado, local officials here say, is an increase in natural gas drilling, particularly in the Piceance Basin, which has the second-largest deposit of natural gas in the nation,” reported The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. “Polis said he generally favors projects that would enhance the Western Slope’s economy, but stopped short of saying he would support the Jordan Cove project as a bipartisan group of statewide elected officials already have, including Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, a Republican who represents the 3rd Congressional District.”

And on water?

In a state where water needs are projected to exceed supply by 2050, how to handle often competing water issues will be a challenge for the next governor. Current Gov. Hickenlooper created the first-ever state water plan, but questions swirl about its efficacy and cost — projections have already doubled from $20 billion to $40 billion in less than two years.

Polis has said he would adopt a “2.0” version of Hickenlooper’s state water plan, and would call for increased conservation.

“We must also be sure to rebuff efforts by Washington to control our water supply, particularly in ways that value the needs of other states over our own,” he told The Colorado Independent in an answer to a questionnaire. “Colorado already only has access to approximately a third of the water we create, and I will be a strong advocate for Colorado’s needs. While we implement Colorado’s Water Plan, we should remain nimble and flexible in updating it to take advantage of new revenue streams, monitor water quality and supply, take note of new water data, use new technology to produce a more resilient water supply, and prioritize conservation.”

Speaking on Aug. 23 to the Colorado Water Congress, a summit on water issues, Polis said with cattle, corn and bean prices dropping, and lower incomes for farmers and ranchers coupled with higher costs of living, “I think we can begin to understand why so many rural families are deeply concerned about the future.”

Polis said climate change is contributing to lower snowpack and reservoir levels, drought, warmer temperatures and shorter ski seasons. “Our economy simply can’t afford to put ideological resistance over scientific fact,” he said. As governor, he said he would make implementing and fully funding the state’s Water Plan a priority by finding and dedicating $100 million in the budget each year and would resist “any and all” federal efforts to dictate water decisions or attempts to export Colorado’s water to “moneyed interests” outside the state. As temperatures warm because of climate change, he said, he would push for stronger conservation measures in the state’s water plan for urban and suburban parts of Colorado. As a matter of principle, he said he would oppose trans-mountain diversion projects, which move water from the western side of the state to the eastern side, if they haven’t already been agreed upon. And he said he would limit the buying of farmland for water use, a practice known as buy-and-dry. “I understand that managing population growth on the Front Range cannot come at the expense of our rural communities,” he said.

Stapleton has said he does not support raising severance taxes on oil-and-gas operators, which brings in money for the state Water Plan, an idea Hickenlooper proposed since funding has gone down. A campaign spokesman did not respond to a request for more information about where Stapleton stands on water issues in Colorado for this original story in mid-June, but the candidate laid out some ideas at a Colorado water conference in Vail on Aug. 22. 

There, Stapleton said he favors keeping Hickenlooper’s statewide Water Plan, adding he would have a  “Water Czar” who remains in a cabinet-level position and reports directly to the governor while expanding his or her authority “to include coordinating projects and implementing our water agenda.”

He said he supports building new infrastructure, enhancing conservation efforts, and “protecting the individual property rights of municipal, agricultural, and industrial water users.” He said he would use the power of the governor’s office and the courts to defend the state’s water rights. If elected governor, he said, he would build more water storage in part through new reservoirs and by streamlining the permitting process.

Stapleton said he supports more money flowing to water projects, but not through new taxes. Instead, he said he would look to help developers and water boards borrow money through “capital markets” and said he would be open to using sports gambling revenues to also pay for water projects. 

Divergent views on healthcare

According to the Colorado Health Access Survey administered by the Colorado Health Institute, the region with the state’s highest uninsured rate is northwestern Colorado at 13 percent. The state’s rural areas scored poorly in the report.

In the gubernatorial race, healthcare is an area where Republicans appear to think Polis is vulnerable, given an early attack ad by the Republican Governor’s Association that pops his support for “single-payer healthcare.” And following a rally in Jefferson County as one of his first campaign stops in the general election, Stapleton said he believed health care would be a defining issue in the contest.

For his part, Polis chose as his running mate former state lawmaker Dianne Primavera who has “waged more battle with health insurers than any other legislators in the past decade,” according to The Denver Business Journal.

During his primary campaign for governor, Polis talked up his support as a member of Congress for a Medicare-for-all plan, which would be a single-payer approach at the national level. As governor, he has said he would support a single-payer approach that would require a multi-state compact.

When it comes to just inside Colorado’s own borders, he has said he would look at implementing a statewide pricing zone to balance out costs, adding, “I don’t need any legislation to do it.”

During the primary, he touted a plan to join into a multi-state consortium “to offer a universal, single-payer option out West” where the states would share costs. In a February op-ed Polis penned for The Aspen Times, Polis noted a high percentage of rural Coloradans don’t have health insurance, and 11 counties in Colorado lack a hospital. “A multi-state single-payer system would allow us to better analyze access to providers for rural Colorado and correct disparities of primary-care availability in these areas,” he wrote.

Just this week, Polis talked up the idea of working with other states, telling the alt-weekly Westword that Colorado “can do it better” in a multi-state consortium. “I think we might have that opportunity, with other Western states, to negotiate better pricing of prescription drugs and to negotiate better fees for providers,” he said. “The larger the risk pool, the more the savings we can pass along to consumers and small businesses.”

Polis has said if he becomes governor he would meet with other western governors in, say, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Montana, and Washington, to talk about collaborating and ask for waivers from he federal government if they come up with a framework.

While a supporter of the federal Affordable Care Act, Polis has faulted part of its implementation in Colorado in the way parts of the state have been carved up into nine zones where health insurance costs vary widely and leave the state’s mountain towns with some of the highest healthcare costs in the nation.

In his first months in office, Polis recently said, he would “reconfigure pricing zones and bring down health-care costs” in high-cost areas and floated the idea of having just a handful of pricing zones or even just one single pricing zone covering the state.

When the new federal law passed, Colorado’s Division of Insurance under Hickenlooper collapsed the state’s 11 pricing zones into nine. For the past few years, a bipartisan group of Western Slope lawmakers have argued for creating one statewide pricing zone, but a bill last year to create one failed.

Under the ACA, health insurers can only discriminate on three areas: age, smoking, and where people live, says Joe Hanel, who manages public policy outreach for the Colorado Health Institute. So while an insurance company must offer the same prices for plans in rating areas, they don’t actually have to offer plans in every county in a rating area. There was concern, based off of a report by the Colorado Department of Insurance, that an insurance company might pull out of a county if Colorado had only one statewide pricing zone, Hanel says.

While Stapleton rejects the idea of a multi-state approach, he has been less specific than Polis on his healthcare plans beyond saying he would shrink Medicaid expansion and seek to end Colorado’s Obamacare exchange, which covers about 8 percent of Coloradans. He has said he believes the federal government will eventually kick grants back to the states so governors can handle Medicaid expansion on their own.

If that happened under his governorship, he says he will implement a “managed model” for it and will better manage Medicaid by rooting out fraud, overbilling and other problems.

“Managed Medicaid doesn’t just mean outsourcing to a third party,” he said. “It means the governor needs to rebuild departments where leadership has been lost in managing the cost model around Medicaid expansion in the state.”

It’s still early in the race, so there will be plenty of time between now and November for the candidates to more fully drill down on these and more issues facing rural and Western Colorado — as well as everywhere else.

Alex Burness and Johnny Herick contributed to this report.

Photo by Corey Hutchins


  1. Well…Polis isn’t racist, religious or Rambo….so I’m not sure how much traction he’s going to get in Rube County.

    Walkkker on the other hand….

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