DENVER — Dueling speeches in a sparkling ballroom from Colorado’s major candidates for governor today highlighted a political minefield in the coming campaign over the state’s oil-and-gas industry.
At The Energy Summit on Wednesday at the Colorado Convention Center, both Democrat Jared Polis and Republican Walker Stapleton touted an industry that generates more than 100,000 jobs and tens of billions in economic impact and tried to appeal to workers for support.
But Polis, a congressman from Boulder who is running on a platform of getting the state’s electricity grid to 100 percent renewable energy by 2040 and has financially supported efforts to limit fracking, has a longer way to go to win favor from some in the energy sector.
And, if heckling from some anti-fracking protesters on Wednesday is any indication, the sector’s skeptics also have some issues with Polis.
Polis’s remarks to the group were highly anticipated as the state’s oil-and-gas interests have so far refrained from going on the attack against him in a governor’s race that is expected to obliterate spending records. Polis, one of the wealthiest members of Congress, can self-fund his campaign. Stapleton, who cannot self-fund to nearly the same extent, could get much-needed help — help he has publicly asked for — if the industry engages on his behalf, which it so far has not.
Prior to the summit, hosted by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association and attended by hundreds of oil and gas workers, COGA’s spokesman Scott Prestige said the group was taking a wait-and-see approach to Polis’s positions as it focuses more on a proposed ballot measure it opposes. That measure, Initiative 97, would increase the setback limits from drill rigs to homes from 500 feet to 2,500. Colorado’s oil-and-gas regulatory agency says that if the measure passes, 80 percent of non-federal land in the state would be off limits to drilling.
Polis once financially backed a ballot measure to set limits at 2,000 feet, but then made sure it never got on the ballot as part of a compromise during a tough campaign season for Democrats in 2014. He said he opposes the current potential measure.
“Initiative 97 would all but ban fracking in Colorado, a position I’ve never supported however much Walker Stapleton may wish I had,” Polis said Wednesday, adding that he would want to work to enact “stronger” setbacks as a backstop if landowners and operators can’t reach an agreement over land use. He called such agreements “a common source of income for farmers and ranchers,” and said they should have a say “over where surface impact occurs on their land so that it doesn’t interfere with their main livelihood.”
Polis said he also opposes a potential measure called Initiative 108, supported by oil-and-gas interests, aimed at providing compensation for landowners if a government passes a law that hurts their property values. He said he believes it would have far-reaching ramifications. “Does anybody truly believe that local government and state government shouldn’t be able to zone for hog farms or cannabis or strip clubs?” he asked. “I surely don’t want them in our neighborhood.”
When it comes to cities and towns having a say in the location of drilling to better protect homes, schools and hospitals, Polis said they should. “Local communities continue turning to fracking bans— and the costly litigation they entail— as a last resort, because our existing laws are leaving them without a meaningful seat at the table,” he said, adding “all parties” should come together on ways to make potential changes.
“Some of these changes can be as simple as allowing local communities to enforce their noise ordinances in the middle of the night,” Polis said, acknowledging that those in the room might not agree.
“I can’t promise that I’ll always agree with you on every issue, but I can promise you an open mind, honest feedback and a genuine commitment to find common ground,” he told the crowd of oil-and-gas folks.
In Stapleton’s speech, which ran about eight minutes — Polis spoke for about 15 — he used much of his time to warn the audience about his opponent.
The Republican state treasurer reiterated his support for a proposed natural gas export facility in Oregon known as Jordan Cove that could spur natural gas development in Western Colorado. (Polis hasn’t said whether does or doesn’t.) “I think the next governor should be fully on board with the project that has a history of bipartisan support,” Stapleton said.
The potential that Democrats could flip the state Senate — currently held by just one seat by Republicans — in the midterms, meaning they would control both chambers of the Statehouse, was also top of mind.
“How long do you think it will be before another setback bill hits the new governor’s desk?” Stapleton said. “Who will be sitting behind that desk will matter to the future of the energy industry in Colorado.”
And he took aim at Polis’s renewable energy plan, calling it “inconceivable,” and saying the state should not be “imposing top-down mandates and picking winners and losers.” (Polis has said his plan is “not a top-down mandate.”)
“In order to keep energy affordable for all Coloradans we need to have an all-of-the-above energy policy,” Stapleton said, adding the state also needs new ways to expand the economy and one way is exporting more energy. “Mountains to hike in summer and ski in winter are not mutually exclusive from a regulated, accountable and a responsible energy industry in Colorado,” he said. “We can have it all, and anyone who says differently is presenting you with a false choice.”
In one remark that drew a big applause, Stapleton used his own opposition to what he called an “energy ban disguised as Initiative 97” to recall Polis’s financial support for the 2014 ballot measure.
“As a numbers guy, I know that 2,500 is not 2,000, but it also isn’t too far off, either,” Stapleton said, also pointing out that the Colorado Democratic Party officially to supports the measure.
Conversations with oil and gas workers following Polis’s speech showed some continue to harbor concerns that a potential Governor Polis would be closer to his circa-2014 self than the open-minded collaborator he styled himself as at the Convention Center.
Bryan Haubert, sales manager with the chemical manufacturer Flotek, which works with the energy sector, said he was impressed by Polis’s speech. “He seems more reasonable to discussion than outward appearances previously,” he said.
But asked if Polis did anything to reverse Haubert’s impression of the Boulder Democrat, he said, “No. I mean, he’s on record saying that he wants to eliminate our industry.” (Polis has said that’s never been his position.)
By contrast, Haubert said, he believes Stapleton “would be incredibly fair” to the industry.
Debi Spoo Roe, a gas marketer with Encana, said, “I think that we can talk about getting along, but actions show that they mean what they say. I don’t know that we will see the collaboration that Jared Polis talks about. I hope so, but I feel like if he were to be elected, the industry would be under attack.”
Ahna Mee, who works for a private equity fund that buys minerals and invests in a natural gas basin in Northeast Colorado, said it was nice to hear Polis say landowners and mineral owners have rights and need to balance them with health and safety, but she has concerns about local governments getting more power to regulate the industry.
Mee said that while Polis says he doesn’t support Initiative 97, those who do “will have a lot of pressure on him” should he be elected. “That being unknown makes me uncomfortable,” she said.
At least three anti-fracking protesters interrupted Polis by shouting questions that were difficult to make out amid boos from others in the crowd, and calls of “Let him speak,” but clearly were meant to press him to be more forceful against fracking. Polis didn’t engage as security removed those interrupting his speech. “From the top, ladies and gentlemen,” he said to chuckles after a pause.
During a recent candidate forum, Polis was asked to clarify his views on the ballot measure, given he supported previous ballot efforts for increased setbacks, but opposes the current one.
“People who believe in you as an environmental champion still sometimes get confused on where you are on setbacks and oil and gas,” the event moderator told him. “Can you kind of just expound on that for us for a little bit? … Just sort of make it make sense for people who are like, ‘Well, what are you doing?'”
Polis responded, “Well, I think people kind of understand that I try to push where I can to protect our health and safety, for greater setbacks that allow property owners to have more rights, and people also realize I have to operate in the political arena to accomplish things that often involve compromise.”
The conservative 501(c)4 political group Colorado Rising Action — not to be confused with the pro-Initiative 97 group Colorado Rising — posted video of the exchange:
At the end of Wednesday’s session at The Energy Summit, Dan Haley, the president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, told luncheon attendees they must be prepared to work with Polis if he becomes governor.
“There are going to be times,” if Polis is elected, Haley said, “when we’re going to disagree with him, and we’re going to disagree vehemently— and we’re going to do so in a very civil manner.”