Skip to comments.How Fracking Could Break Colorado Democrats
Posted on 04/15/2014 7:53:51 PM PDT by Second Amendment First
Jared Polis really doesnt care what anyone else thinks. If you saw the Colorado congressman speaking on the House floor last month wearing a clip-on bowtie with a polo shirt under his blazer, you know what Im talking about. Hes been this way since he first emerged on the scene.
About 10 years ago, when he was just 28, Polis was one of four wealthy Colorado Democrats who pooled their considerable personal resources to create a state-of-the-art political machine that was ruthlessly effective in turning this once-red heartland state a stunning shade of blue.
But Polis wouldnt run with that pack for very long.
In 2008, just a few months before Barack Obama accepted the Democratic Partys presidential nomination in Denver, Polis stood in a hotel ballroom near his hometown of Boulder and basked in the glow of his own victory: a difficult primary win over a long-time state lawmaker favored by his former cohorts and the Democratic establishment. It was a win that cost the self-made millionaire some $5 million and all but assured him a safe seat in Congress.
Openly gay and outspoken, Polis came to Congress having made his fortune turning his parents greeting card company into a couple of e-card websites and an online florist company. Hes stood out in Washington from day one, painting his office walls neon yellow and snaring more than the usual share of headlines with his deft use of social media and unexpected policy positions: embracing marijuana legalization, pushing the government to stop minting dollar bills and, just last December, breaking House rules during a floor speech to recognize undocumented immigrants in the gallery above and shouting over the gaveling that Congress was tearing their families apart.
But none of thats as ballsyor as consequentialas what hes doing now: Polis is quietly financing a series of statewide ballot measures to allow Colorado cities and counties to regulate, zone and even ban fracking, the commonly used process in which a pressurized mix of water, sand and chemicals are pumped deep below the surface of the earth to loosen natural gas deposits for extraction. As a drilling boom has pushed many wells closer to houses and schools, concerns about possible long- and short-term health effects of air and water contamination and radiation exposure have prompted five Colorado cities to approve municipal bans. But it remains unclear whether the authority to limit oil and gas development resides with the state or with local governments. Polis is pushing to settle that matter once and for all.
His move isnt just an existential threat to whats now a $29 billion annual industry in the state. Its a brazen political power play thats likely to release a torrent of outside spending in swing-state Colorado, jeopardizing the reelection of two fellow Democrats whose names will appear above his own on the November ballot: Gov. John Hickenlooper, an oft-mentioned presidential contender, and Mark Udall, whose reelection bid could determine control of the U.S. Senate.
This is a huge fucking deal, says Ted Trimpa, a Denver power lawyer and strategist once dubbed the Democrats Karl Rove, talking to me while in Washington last week. Trimpa was instrumental in helping Polis and the three other millionaires build Colorados progressive infrastructure and consolidate power over the last decade. Now he finds himself trying to hold it all together.
He worries that the ballot initiative would splinter a progressive coalition in Colorado thats been so successful that its now seen as a blueprint for Democrats and Republicans in other statesits many successes attributable to an unusual and lasting harmony, an ability to avoid sticky policy fights that distract from the shared goal: winning.
Resolving Colorados fracking fight quickly may yet provide other states with a blueprint of how to deal with local control issues around oil and gas, a national example of how compromise and consensus can be achieved even in our polarized times. But if Poliss measures move toward the November ballot, the country may find out that Colorado isnt such a model after all, that coalition politics arent as easy as this state has made them seem.
Were a state known for the two sides working together, Trimpa tells me, but if this initiative makes the ballot, the age of that will be gone for a very long time.
Hickenlooper is Poliss opposite in one important way: He cares what everyone thinks.
Ive covered him since he was first elected Denver mayor in 2003 after having worked as a geologist in the oil and gas industry before opening a chain of brewpubsand I cant count how many times Ive heard him frame his political M.O. around his time in the restaurant industry: Theres no margin in making people unhappy, hes fond of saying.
Hickenlooper has made a career of endearing himself to the public by pursuing consensus, imbuing policy positions with a salesmans innate optimism and embracing his personal quirks and natural, affable awkwardness. In a press conference, he once accidentally referred to his lieutenant governor as a rising sex star. His staffers often hold their breath when the governors at the mic: Its like watching a baby cross a highway, one told me onceeven though the politically charmed Hickenlooper always manages to get through it unscathed.
He jumped out of an airplane in support of a 2006 ballot measure; running for governor four years later, he disavowed negative ads by taking a shower in an ad of his own to illustrate how dirty he feels after watching them. In 2011, he raised eyebrows when he told Congress that he once drank a glass of Halliburtons finest fracking fluid, trying to underscore how advances in technology have made drilling safer.
That one didnt go over so well.
Hickenloopers steadfast support for his old industryinsisting that fracking is safe, refusing to demonize big oil and gas to satisfy his partys base and, most of all, suing the northern Colorado city of Longmont last year after voters there approved a municipal fracking banhas alienated a significant chunk of the electorate, from far-left environmentalist types to Not-In-My-Backyard homeowners suddenly worried about health risks and diminished property values at the sight of drilling derricks popping up at the end of their street or next to their kids schools.
If youve ever visited Colorado, chances are youve spent time in downtown Denver or headed immediately west, up into the Rockies to hit the slopes at Vail or Breckenridge. But drive north out of Denver on Interstate 25 or any smaller state highway and youll see: The states drilling boom is impossible to miss, with hulking derricks dotting the arid plains in seemingly every direction.
Had the industry, which employs 50,000 Coloradans, confined its drilling to the less populated northeastern plains, had it stayed away from the cities and suburbs sprawling north out of Denver, this fight wouldnt be taking place.
When Hickenlooper first took office, he wore his support for oil and gas proudly, eager to prove a mavericks willingness to deviate from the party line. But as drilling has moved closer to homes and families, worried suddenly about water contamination or future health problems from unseen pollutants, its been harder, especially for a Democrat, to be a cheerleader for the industry. On this issue, the pragmatic politician has violated his own rule: Hes made a lot of his constituents unhappy.
These people are angry for a reason, Trimpa tells me. Not because theyre nutcases but because shit is happening in their backyards. Extreme or not, thats where they are. Ignoring it and calling them crazythats not a policy solution.
Hickenlooper has been heckled and shouted down by protesters in Longmont and elsewhere. Even his considerable success this year in convincing the states three biggest oil and gas operators to join with environmentalists in support of new emissions rules for the industrymaking Colorado the first state to regulate methanehasnt been enough to repair the damage.
Johns had the Midas touch, politically, except on this issue, one Colorado environmentalist and Hickenlooper ally complained to me. If he hadnt sued Longmont, hed be in a different place. But he owns this mess as much as Jared does.
Ensnared in all this is Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, the scion of a western political dynasty whos fighting for his political life now that Republicans have lured Rep. Cory Gardner, a young, smooth-talking up-and-comer, into the race.
Already, Gardners campaign has been pressuring Udall to take a position on what its calling a fracking ban.
Udall, whose wife used to run the Sierra Club, may need financial help from California billionaire and climate change advocate Tom Steyer to hold his seat. Thats why hell have a hard time rejecting an initiative that, on its face, lets communities decide whether to allow drilling so close to peoples backyards; a concept that polls high, with support for local control of oil and gas issues running in the sixties here.
Hed probably be inclined to support it if doing so wouldnt just give his opponents added firepower.
Marks in a no-win position, politically, Trimpa tells me. But the larger concern is the initiative bringing in these outside companies thatll spend millions, which will indirectly help Republicans.
At least three business- and industry-backed groups have already been formed to fight the ballot measures. The American Petroleum Institute already has $20 million set aside should Poliss initiatives make the November ballot, part of whats likely to be a $40 to $50 million play by the industry when its all said and done, one thatll likely help turn out conservative voters in an off-year election where Democrats are already facing a built-in turnout problem, while also driving up the cost of TV air time, making other campaigns even more expensive.
Political consultants and TV station managers may be salivating, but Hickenlooper and Udall are privately steamed at Polis, who, in pushing these initiatives, is throwing them under the bus.
Many Republicans agree. Not that theyre losing sleep over it.
You dont have to be a Svengali to see this is a slow motion train wreck for Mark Udall and every other Democrat up and down the ballot, says Josh Penry, a former Republican state lawmaker and gubernatorial candidate now working in the oil and gas industry.
Colorado Republicans arent only excited about the prospect of taking out Udalltheyre also looking forward to watching Democrats engage in the same destructive brand of intra-party warfare thats stymied the GOP for the last decade.
You essentially have a small cadre of burned-out Occupy Wall Streeters and an egomaniacal congressman from Boulder with a little money burning a hole in his pocket about to thoroughly jeopardize the re-election of Mark Udall and John Hickenlooper, Penry exults. In 2004 and 2006, when the Democrats were laser-beam focused on building a governing coalition, the progressive roundtable wouldve absolutely crushed this kind of idiocy."
Polis, who insists hes trying to solve a policy problem rather than create a political one, wasnt so outspoken about fracking until a well got drilled across the street from his second home along a small county road near Loveland, about 30 miles north of Denver. Suddenly, the congressman was the star of his own YouTube video, wandering around his property, looking up at the 50-foot derrick across the street and lamenting, My Colorado dream is over.
Sure, it may be difficult to sympathize with the seventh richest member of Congress, a man whose estimated net worth of $72 million can buy him any number of additional homes and dreams. But Poliss personal story has nonetheless resonated with constituents who have been experiencing the same thing.
The first TV ad from Poliss group, Coloradans for Local Control, simply shows hulking steel derricks looming above real homes, parks and schools. Would you want to live here? Want your kids to play here? a female narrator asks. Right now, you and your neighbors cant stop it.
For now, Colorado Democrats are trying to figure out if they can stop Polis, who appears to have Hickenlooper a bit rattled in this high-stakes game of political poker.
Clearly, Polis, who has bucked the party establishment by pushing ballot initiatives twice before, isnt just bluffing, already throwing his money behind a petition push and the TV ad, trying to force the governors hand: Hes ready to go all in and put the initiatives on the November ballot but hes also intimated that hed happily fold if Hickenlooper and the legislature can addressthe local control issue before the session ends in May.
Thats what Trimpa, an experienced fixer, is working onbut time is running short.
Jared is pointing out a real problem, Trimpa says. There is an underlying question about local governments and their ability to regulate fracking through zoning and other ordinances, and theres real emotion behind it. And we need to take Jared seriously. We can complain hes using his money to get attention on this issue, but welcome to American politics.
While Polis truly believes the ballot initiatives will help mobilize left-leaning voters, Trimpa, Hickenlooper, Udall and most other Democrats would prefer to head this off now. The question is whether Republicans or an industry thats never regarded Udall as an ally have a good reason to come to the tableand negotiate a legislative compromise that, at least politically, would let the Democrats off the hook.
But Americans For Prosperity, the Koch Brothers-aligned outfit thats already planning to pump millions into top Senate races to take out Democrats like Udall, doesnt want the local control issue on the November ballot.
My concern is that the consequences a policy like this would have on our state far outweigh any perceived political opportunities, AFPs Colorado director, Dustin Zvonek, told me. The way the proponents are couching it, calling it local control, it scares me. I think they could message it in a way that it passes without voters understanding that its a fracking ban. (In truth, the local control measures would leave it up to individual cities to pass local bans.)
Hickenlooper might have to lean on both industry and a handful of Democratic legislators from liberal Boulder County to pull together a winning hand.
Industry and the environmental community have come together in Colorado to pass air emissions and frack fluid disclosure regulations that are a national model, Hickenlooper told me. Striking the right balance between local control and private property rights is the next big challenge.
The best argument for both sides to negotiate a legislative solution at this point may be that its something they can still control.
We dont know which way the ball will bounce if this goes to the voters, Alan Salazar, Hickenloopers chief strategist, told me. Its like setting off a grenade in a closetyou never know if someones going to get killed.
Driving up I-25 through Weld County towards Fort Collins, you see plenty of rigs. But compared to a coal mine, power plant, steel mill; they are trivial.
The people in these areas welcome the work and enjoy the balance. It’s the people in Lo-Do,Cherry Creek and Boulder who are alarmed.
Still there can be compromise. Say no rigs west of I-25? Then they can live out their dream of an unobstructed view of the Front Range.
East of I-25, meh. There’s nothing until Kansas.
But that cloud of marijuana smoke that envelops the state will cause the population to be cool with things just the way they are (Rats everywhere).
Let’s hope so!
“But that cloud of marijuana smoke that envelops the state will cause the population to be cool with things just the way they are (Rats everywhere).”
The dopers will forget what day the election is on. I want all democrats to be stoned, drunk and horny on election days maybe then they won’t vote or at least only vote once.
Even the Dems like to hunt in CO. Governor ChickenPooper is going get knocked out over the gun grab.
My thoughts are that the CO natives will rout the Californicators this time.
Excuse me......f**king = fracking.
And it’s not like people are going to complain that you obscured their view of Kansas.
So... that means he helps Republicans get elected ?
I’d be surprised if Polis was not an out-of-state transplant who needed a new nest to crap in...sounds like a Californicator in spirit, if not in fact.
Colorado Ping ( Let me know if you wish to be added or removed from the list.)
The article says the bill would put fracking decisions in the control of cities and counties. Why would this be a problem? We don’t believe in local decision making? I’ve driven across the state of Colorado from the east. Your’re right, nothing until the Front Range.
interesting ... their top dog is biting some hands? Might cause an over-the-top inside fight between some of the big dogs and little dogs and leave the blue dogs turning red? Might be just enough to tip or scrape the scales and some fish lose their heads or minds. Would be an interesting fight.
95% of last year's drilling was in Weld County, so your idea appears good. However, areas just east of the Front Range axis are prime, and they are west of I-25. That encroaches on Boulder, Longmont and Loveland. Though the issue is heated, it is focused on a much smaller area than the article implies. Loveland has set a fracking moratorium vote for July 29th, which is unlikely to pass (perhaps that's why they set the vote) and would be beyond the city's powers if it did. The local rights fracking issue is limited to Boulder County: Boulder and Longmont.
The oil companies would do well to cool their heels until this blows over, and to drill where they wont face opposition.
Political consultants and TV station managers may be salivating, but Hickenlooper and Udall are privately steamed at Polis, who, in pushing these initiatives, is throwing them under the bus... "You dont have to be a Svengali to see this is a slow motion train wreck for Mark Udall and every other Democrat up and down the ballot," says Josh Penry, a former Republican state lawmaker and gubernatorial candidate now working in the oil and gas industry... "You essentially have a small cadre of burned-out Occupy Wall Streeters and an egomaniacal congressman from Boulder with a little money burning a hole in his pocket about to thoroughly jeopardize the re-election of Mark Udall and John Hickenlooper... In 2004 and 2006, when the Democrats were laser-beam focused on building a governing coalition, the progressive roundtable wouldve absolutely crushed this kind of idiocy."
Many moons ago, I worked gas wells in Western CO, near Rifle, and iirc, the oil/gas patch out there extends up to Craig. There is also considerable interest in the Green River Shale, as soon as someone figures out how to extract the oil. Hydraulic fracturing isn’t the only variety of fraccing out there (The US Government even tried a nuke downhole), so be careful what you ban where, ‘cause you might want it later.