On a cloudy afternoon in October, John Hickenlooper was standing on the sidewalk outside the Broadway Market in Denver. A woman asked to take a photo with him. Another joked she wanted his autograph. Hickenlooper, who ended his presidential bid in August to run for the U.S. Senate, said it’s nice to be back in Colorado.
“They had no idea who I was,” Hickenlooper said of people in New Hampshire, a key battleground in the race for president. “In Colorado, I’ve got this history.”
For better or for worse, that history now follows Hickenlooper on the campaign trail.
Hickenlooper, whose presidential run was a blip on the national scene, entered the race in August with a leg up in name recognition and popularity. The former petroleum geologist, brew pub owner, Denver mayor and two-term governor jumped into the race and instantly became the presumed frontrunner. He is Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s pick to take on Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican from Yuma, in a race that could be pivotal in Democrats’ efforts to win back the U.S. Senate in 2020. He scored an early endorsement from party leadership in D.C., the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and netted $2.1 million in his first quarter of fundraising, more than all the other Democratic candidates. Since he announced his bid, four other candidates have dropped out, including Mike Johnston, a former state senator and candidate for governor last year, and Alice Madden, a former state representative who served in the Department of Energy during the Obama administration.
The eight candidates remaining in the Democratic primary have called him out for opposing Medicare for All, waffling over impeachment and having said — repeatedly — he’s “not cut out” to be a senator. But no aspect of his bid draws more flak than his record on fracking. It’s a cloud that lingers over his every mention of climate change. Hickenlooper tweets about it and people respond by calling him “Frackenlooper” or by posting a video of him saying he drank fracking fluid. The Sunrise Movement, a youth-led political movement focused on stopping climate change, lambasted him for failing to show up for a climate debate in Colorado Springs last month, calling him “Chickenlooper” for allegedly dodging a conversation about his record on the climate. The group on Monday endorsed Andrew Romanoff, former CEO of Mental Health Colorado and former speaker of the Colorado House, saying the group will begin campaigning to highlight “all the reasons why Hickenlooper is so dangerous for this state.”
In 2013, his administration sued the city of Longmont when it sought to ban drilling. In 2014, he derailed a ballot measure that would have increased setbacks between drilling rigs and homes. In 2018, he sought to delay a decision by the Environmental Protection Agency that would have led to more stringent regulations for polluters, including drillers, in the northern Front Range region, which is currently failing federal air standards for smog. That same year, citing security concerns and the threat of theft, he opposed efforts to make maps of buried gas pipelines available for public inspection after one near a home exploded and killed two men.
In a state where 77% of Colorado voters consider climate change a serious problem, his record of supporting an industry that both contributes to climate change and the region’s smog levels is a vulnerability his opponents are jabbing.
“People have been damaged by his actions,” said Diana Bray, one of Hickenlooper’s rivals for Senate and a community activist who has testified before oil and gas regulators.
Hickenlooper’s strongest competitor at the moment, Romanoff says flatly that the former governor is “beholden to the industry.”
Hickenlooper has been trying to fortify this weak spot among liberals. Early in the race, he billed himself as perhaps the only “scientist” in the field. About a month after announcing his bid, he penned an op-ed in The Colorado Sun pitching a plan to “confront the climate crisis head-on.” Last month, Hickenlooper sat down with The Colorado Independent to talk about his climate plan and defend his record on oil and gas drilling in Colorado. Climate change, he said, is “the most serious threat to humanity in history. I would match [my environmental record] up against anybody.”
In a field of rivals running to his left, Hickenlooper, in signature fashion, stakes out a middle ground on climate change solutions, neither alienating the oil and gas industry nor mainstream environmentalists. His plan reflects not just his record, but also a philosophy that climate change solutions must be global — and it’s why dismisses the idea of banning fracking in Colorado.
‘You can’t stop it’
Like other candidates in the race, Hickenlooper wants to zero out carbon emissions by 2050, rejoin the 2016 Paris climate accord, enact a carbon tax, spend billions on electric vehicle charging stations and renewable energy projects, and create a plan to help workers in fossil fuels industries transition to jobs in renewable energy. He would vote for the CORE Act, which would preserve about 400,000 acres of public lands for wilderness and recreation across Colorado and ban drilling in the Thompson Divide. He also wants to reinstate Obama-era methane regulations for drillers that Trump repealed.
He parts ways with most of his rivals in three ways.
First, he, unlike the others, refused to sign the No Fossil Fuels Money Pledge. He has received about $10,000 (of his $2.1 million) from people with ties to the oil and gas industry, including former U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who now works as an attorney representing oil and gas companies.
Second, he is opposed to the Green New Deal. On the presidential trail, he said it was unachievable with current technology. Hickenlooper has also dubbed the climate agenda, which includes public-works programs and financial reforms, as socialism: “We should not try to tackle climate change by guaranteeing every American a government job,” he said at a California Democratic convention amid a cacophony of booing.
Third, he does not support a ban on fracking, something that five of his rivals are calling for.
Banning drilling in Colorado would just shift more drilling out of state, he said, and that, he argues, will not help drive down global greenhouse gas emissions. Rather than cutting off supply, he says he wants to set a model for how to transition away from fossil fuels.
“You can’t stop it. If we stopped it here, it’s like trying to put your finger in a dike that has a thousand holes,” Hickenlooper said. “It would make no difference to the climate.”
He added: “I’m not sure we’ve ever blocked an industry. You’re saying we have to cut off the supply. I’m saying we have to cut off the demand.”
“Our goal has to be how rapidly can we move to an economy where people are not burning gasoline and not burning fuel oil — to a non-carbon economy,” he said.
‘Working within the system’
Ask Hickenlooper about his record on fracking and he’ll point to the much-ballyhooed 2014 methane rules. The regulations, pushed by Hickenlooper after Longmont, Fort Collins, Boulder and Lafayette voted to ban or pause fracking, were the first in the nation to regulate methane emissions. Their adoption drew national attention. In a statement issued at the time, Hickenlooper declared the regulations yet another example of how “collaboration and compromise help solve important issues facing our state.”
The rules, largely reliant upon industry self-reporting, require companies to report and fix methane leaks, tens of thousands of which are still discovered every year. They also required companies to install devices that their manufacturers say capture 95 percent of emissions — both volatile organic compounds and methane, a greenhouse gas.
The national head of the Environmental Defense Fund, Fred Krupp, declared them, “the strongest rules on air pollution ever adopted in the U.S.” and “a model for the nation.”
The 2014 rules since have become central to the industry’s fight against further restrictions, allowing it to argue that Colorado already has some of the toughest regulations in the nation.
But critics note that since 2014, when the state passed methane regulations, oil production has more than doubled and natural gas production has increased by 23%. That production, and the subsequent downstream emissions, they argue, negates many of the benefits of the regulations. Meanwhile, after the regulations were passed, the budget for the Air Pollution Control Division, which ensures companies don’t pollute more than their state permits allow, barely budged. This year, Gov. Jared Polis is proposing to increase the agency’s budget by about 10%, which includes adding 10 new inspectors to the agency.
Hickenlooper also touts Colorado’s adoption of Obama-era fuel efficiency standards for automobiles, which the Trump administration is seeking to undo at the national level. And he points to his 2017 executive order that put the state on track to meet the emissions-reduction goals in the Paris climate accord.
He also claims credit for a study, commissioned by his administration and released this October, that found people who live near wells face a higher risk of short term health impacts such as nose bleeds, headaches and nausea — the very symptoms underpinning hundreds of complaints sent to his administration during his tenure.
“Who do you think authorized that study?” he asked. “Whose idea was that? So we get the complaints and we say let’s study this. That’s how we have to work within the system that we have.”
The study was one of the recommendations made by an oil and gas task force that Hickenlooper set up in exchange for then-Congressman Jared Polis dropping his support for 2014 ballot measure that would have increased setbacks between homes and drilling rigs. Another one of those recommendations was for the Colorado Department of Public Health (CDPHE) to create a health complaint and information hotline related to oil and gas concerns. Asked for his thoughts on how the CDPHE has handled health complaints, he recommended speaking to the agency itself.
Others view such complaints as a reason to update the state’s baseline 500-foot setback between homes and oil and gas wells. Trish Zornio, a scientist and Senate candidate, whose 12-page climate plan reads more like a research paper than a policy platform, proposes increasing setbacks 10,000 feet before phasing out drilling altogether. Hickenlooper opposed larger setbacks.
“It concerns me greatly that [Hickenlooper] is still yet to acknowledge the role of fossil fuel extraction in terms of public health outcomes,” Zornio said.
Hickenlooper’s campaign did not respond to follow-up questions about the specific findings of the study on public health impacts.
He says he doesn’t remember why his administration in 2018 sought to delay a designation by the Environmental Protection Agency that would have led to a crackdown on polluters in the northern Front Range region, including oil and gas drillers, which release volatile organic compounds, an ingredient in smog. His memory is also foggy when recalling why he wanted the EPA to consider out-of-state emissions in its decision making, but he said the request was at least “based on science.”
“Let me get up to speed on that,” he said.
He has yet to respond, despite multiple requests and follow-up questions. His response will be added, if provided.
‘Informed voters are very slow to forgive’
Despite criticism from climate activists, Hickenlooper’s earned the endorsement from the Environmental Defense Fund, an environmental advocacy group.
“Governor Hickenlooper will bring his environmental experience to the Senate, including a strong track record of conservation and climate action,” said EDF Action President Joe Bonfiglio in an emailed statement. “John Hickenlooper’s efforts as Governor draw a stark contrast to Senator Gardner’s anti-environmental voting record, which has put Coloradans’ health, air, and water at risk.”
Hickenlooper’s support from disparate groups could be an advantage in the race to unseat a Republican, in a state were unaffiliated and Democratic registered voters each only have a slight edge over Republicans. And even though some environmental activists are not enthusiastic about his record on the climate, they want Gardner out of office. Gardner, who has served in the Senate since 2016, has a 10%, failing score from the League of Conservation Voters for his votes on environmental legislation.
Still, other candidates say his ties to the industry could create lukewarm enthusiasm among liberals in the 2020 election.
“I think Hickenlooper’s history negatively impacts our chances to win this race,” said Lorena Garcia, an activist, community organizer and U.S. Senate candidate. “We have informed voters. Informed voters are very slow to forgive.”
At the end of our interview, Hickenlooper was calm and even giddy. The criticism of his environmental record doesn’t change what he described as a lifetime of working on climate change.
“I went to the first Earth Day,” he said. “That was a long time ago.”
Good government, he argued, brings diverse views to the table — from environmental advocates to oil and gas executives. “All this stuff was just a function of trying to get large groups of people together to really just solve their own problems.”
“Government at its best,” he said. “Or not.”
Correction: A previous version of this story said Hickenlooper went to the first Earth Day in 1969. The first Earth Day was in 1970, though discussions about its designation began in 1969.