A Colorado-sized political fight is collecting heat just below the surface of a non-election year summer. In next year’s governor’s race, money could be spent like it’s never been spent before if the flash point issue is energy.
U.S. Rep. Jared Polis is a candidate striking matches.
The best-known (and likely to be the best-financed) Democrat wants Colorado to use 100 percent renewable energy by 2040, a goal also supported by another Democratic candidate, former state Sen. Michael Johnston.
“I’m going to continue to do what I’ve always done to stand up for health and property rights,” Polis said in a phone interview with Colorado Politics. “I look forward to working with the industry, but at the same time, Colorado won’t be bullied by anybody.”
Those “bullies” he refers to are wealthy, politically stealthy oil-and-gas interests. According to an accounting by Christopher N. Osher of The Denver Post, those interests have poured $80 million into swaying public opinion in Colorado since 2014.
Industry leaders and analysts subsequently told Colorado Politics that it was Polis, primarily, who made them aware of their political vulnerabilities in 2014. In a way, he gave life to his own nemesis.
Before Polis became its point man, the anti-drilling faction already had long-established environmentalist connections in Colorado.
But when the congressman from Boulder jumped in the fracking fight, they had a high-profile leader with deeper pockets and stronger D.C. connections.
Dan Haley, the president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, and other industry leaders told Colorado Politics if energy regulation is an issue in next year’s election, they will have no choice but to defend their interests.
“Jared Polis made no friends in the oil and gas industry when he financed initiatives that would have put us out of business in 2014,” Haley told Colorado Politics. “To me it would seem that a former entrepreneur like Congressman Polis would understand better than most that businesses need a stable and predictable regulatory environment, especially businesses trying to make multi-million dollar decisions on a statewide scale.
“The local, patchwork regulations that Congressman Polis promotes would cause those dollars go elsewhere. That’s not good for the state, and that’s not the kind of policies we want a governor to promote.”
The issue will strike close to home, and emotionally, for many voters.
On one hand, people are concerned about the health and safety of their families so close to fracking wells, as well as their property values. A home near an Anadarko Petroleum line exploded in Firestone in April, a fresh reminder.
Opponents also fear water contamination, increases in emissions and even drilling induced earthquakes. Industry spokespeople have tried to dispel those notions, saying they say are unfounded, much as they once said about the possibility of an explosion.
Polis says renewables are a weapon to fight with against climate change and a growth sector for the economy, creating green jobs that can’t be outsourced, rather than the boom and bust of the oilfields.
On the other, more than 110,000 Coloradans hold jobs tied to energy and natural resources. Even with prices down and production slowed, energy still puts about $11.4 billion into the state’s economy each year, according to the state energy office.
The money warThe real measure in both business and politics is usually money, said Kyle Saunders, an associate professor of political science at Colorado State University. Money in politics reflects the profit margin in business.
“There’s a lot of money to be made in various zones in Colorado due to fracking, and that $80 million for PR is reflective of that,” he said. “That’s the reason that money has been spent and will be spent again.”
But oil and gas won’t face a Mr. Empty Pockets in Polis.
The second-richest member of Congress, the tech entrepreneur has millions of his own dollars to spend to get elected governor and move the state toward 100 percent renewable energy by 2040, a campaign promise he announced on the Fourth of July.
Moreover, Polis’ like-minded, wealthy liberal friends have millions of their own to help.
For the political left in Colorado, Polis is on their Mount Rushmore with Pat Stryker, Tim Gill and Rutt Bridges. The four Colorado millionaires invested in liberal political operations that helped turn Colorado into a purple state more than a decade ago.
Polis can also certainly count on Tom Steyer, the liberal billionaire hedge fund operator from California who already has an affinity for Colorado causes.
The New York Times reported last year that Steyer plans to spend $74 million next year on candidates who support action on climate change. Read: Democrats like Polis.
Steyer also pledged to put in $25 million — “a floor, not a ceiling,” he called it — for voter outreach, especially for younger voters, in Colorado and six other states.
Last year, Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action chipped in $200,000 to the Conservation Colorado Victory Fund, for example.
In 2014 Steyer spent nearly $7.4 million to help Sen. Mark Udall, who lost to then.-U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner.
Environmental spending, however, is much more diffuse than that of oil and gas giants such as Anadarko Petroleum and Noble Energy. The industry focuses on one thing, ultimately: its business interests.
Environmental money is like fishing with your hands; the numbers are slippery.
The seven leading nonprofit Colorado environmental groups in Colorado combined have raised more than $45 million since 2013, according to their IRS 990 tax forms. Only a portion of that has been dedicated to campaigns and lobbying, however, and the groups represent diverse interests.
National organizations that have affiliates or causes in Colorado have collected about $1.6 billion in the past four years, so presumably a portion of that is spent in Colorado, as well.
In 2014, Polis provided at least $2.2 million to the anti-fracking group Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy.
Polis also personally donates thousands of dollars each year to several state environmental organizations, state records show.
“National environmental groups and their donors have a First Amendment right to drop tens of millions of dollars on campaigns and lobbying in our state, but they shouldn’t get away with crying poor while they are spending big,” said Simon Lomax, a research fellow for the statewide business coalition Vital for Colorado and a former Bloomberg News reporter who covered White House energy policy.
“And enough with the double standard that says activist groups can campaign to wipe out the state’s oil and gas industry, but the people of that industry can’t campaign in their own defense.”
Petroleum ponies upJust three years ago, however, the American Petroleum Institute alone was ready to spend more than $20 million to fight anti-fracking ballot measures. The following January, API opened up a branch office, the Colorado Petroleum Council, and hired away the governor’s chief lobbyist, Tracee Bentley, to run it.
Oil and gas political interests have been girding for Colorado Armageddon.
Environmental interests are strategizing now on how they’ll match up.
“While we are planning to spend electorally next year, there’s no way that we will ever be able match what the oil and gas industry can bring to the table,” said Pete Maysmith, the executive director of Conservation Colorado, the state’s largest environmental organization.
“As some of the most profitable companies in the world, they can tap into essentially unlimited resources.”
Maysmith has faith, however, that there’s power with the people. He cited a Colorado College poll from last year that showed 77 percent of Coloradans value a healthy environment and support renewable energy.
“We know Coloradans are on our side and support clean air, clean water, and common-sense conservation measures.” he said. “So, we’re planning to get out there, knock on doors and tell voters how important it is to support the candidates who reflect their Colorado values.”
He said Coloradans should be outraged by the money the oil and gas industry is throwing into the state “trying to rig the political game to benefit their own interests, not those of the people of Colorado.”
Haley, the former Denver Post editorial page editor now leading the state Oil and Gas Association, characterized the investment the industry is making in public education and politics as a matter of defense, not offense.
“I don’t know what people expect us to do,” he said. “We have to fight back when we see the bad information that keeps circulating out there. It doesn’t take a lot of money to get people scared, and that’s why it’s important that we go out and educate and talk to people and let them know what’s happening.
“Our industry allowed a vacuum several years ago by not going out and talking about what we were doing, why we were doing it, what the impacts might be and why it’s important to develop our resources locally.And that’s what we’ve been trying to do for the last several years.”
Political landscapePolis has a strong message that’s an easy sell in his Boulder-based congressional district, where oil operations are encroaching on homes — and vice versa — and liberals are plentiful.
But statewide, it’s a more difficult political map in districts that rely on energy jobs or still blame environmentalists and regulators for the exodus of good-paying mining jobs.
Both sides can point to polls that show their support.
But Democrats before Polis have been hesitant to poke the industry’s sleeping bear, for good reason.
Polis’ push for anti-fracking ballot measures in 2014 jeopardized Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s re-election chances, those closest to him acknowledged.
Hickenlooper brokered a truce, creating a special task force to talk about setbacks and local control, which kept both sides on the bench through the November election. The governor won a second term by just 3 percent over Bob Beauprez, a clear ally of extraction.
“Never in the history of man have we harvested natural resources better, more efficiently, safer,” Beauprez said at the time.
Hickenlooper and Polis weren’t on the same side of fracking ballot initiatives before the last gubernatorial election. It will remain to be seen how Hickenlooper handles the crowded Democratic primary, and how he might embrace Polis as the party’s nominee to succeed him. He called Polis’ ideas radical in 2014, and not in a good way.
“It is clear these initiatives will kill jobs and damage our state’s economy,” Hickenlooper, the titular leader of the state Democratic Party, said in 2014. “The oil and gas industry can operate safely, but it will be crippled if these measures pass. These are radical ideas that have no place in our state Constitution.”
Last year Politico reported that Hillary Clinton’s campaign, like Hickenlooper’s before, was worried a fracking fight could complicate the chances of a Democrat to win the state, as well.
With Polis or Johnston at the top of the ticket, that fight seems unavoidable.
Saunders, the CSU political scientist, said an energy fight at the top of the ticket could make it harder for Democrats to win in closely divided legislative districts. Democrats have a nine-seat majority in the state House and need to pick up only one seat to take a majority in the Senate next year.
“I think this is an issue that can be utilized in the media to get Republicans activated,” he said.
If Polis has to outflank other Democrats on the left with a strict anti-fracking message, it would be hard to explain that away in the general election against a job-promising Republican, Saunders said.
“In a competitive primary, if Polis can clear the field and not have to move to the left on the environment and fracking, that’s probably an easier retreat for him back to the middle for the general election,” Saunders said. “He can’t get too far out on the left. I don’t think that’s where the rest of the state is on energy.”
Polis by himself makes energy, already a big issue, a much bigger one next year, said Michael Fortney, a veteran Republican campaign adviser.
“It will continue to be one of the top issues candidates have to address, regardless of who the Democrat nominee is,” said Fortney, who has worked on the statewide campaign for Treasurer Walker Stapleton and on the Western Slope and southern Colorado for Congressman Scott Tipton.
“However, if Polis is not the nominee, it may not be the focal point of the campaign. The conversation turns more toward jobs and the economy, with oil and gas still being a big part of that, but the bigger question (with Polis in) might be whether Colorado continues to be Colorado or will Colorado become California.”
Polis won’t changeTold what Colorado Politics knew of the mounting industry forces against him, Polis sounded confident he could win them over.
“I reject the notion that we can’t find a middle ground between banning fracking and those who want it anywhere and everywhere,” he said.
His history as a businessman means he understands the cost and aggravation of red tape, Polis said.
Haley, the industry executive, hopes Polis follows the lead of other Democrats.
“I think we’ve seen leadership from some Democrats on some key, important issues,” he said. “Even nationally we’ve seen Sen. (Michael) Bennet coming out in support of Jordan Cove, coming out in support of the Keystone XL pipeline. Gov. Hickenlooper standing up saying how fracking is safe — I think those are some of the examples of leadership has helped take this out of the partisan rancor.”
Polis said he’s not gunning to shut down the extraction industry even as he moves the state toward more renewable energy.
“I’m not going to put any businesses out of business in Colorado. I’m going to work with every industry. Extraction is an industry, and there are many others, but no industry should control the entire state.
“And nobody likes a bully.”