There is no question Colorado’s upcoming election cycle is going to be a doozy — headlined by the gubernatorial race between Democratic nominee, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, and the Republican nominee, State Treasurer Walker Stapleton. Certainly, energy issues are primed to be front and center up and down the ticket given the tremendous growth of the oil and gas industry in the state over the past decade.
The contrast on paper on energy issues between Polis and Stapleton couldn’t be more dramatic. Polis has a long history of teaming up with anti-fossil fuel groups and funding anti-fossil fuel ballot measures in recent years that would increase setbacks and make it easier for local communities to issue arbitrary drilling bans. Yet, now as he runs for governor, we are seeing Polis try to reposition himself closer to the center, telling the business community that he supports a “thriving” oil and gas industry. His campaign team has gone out of its way to push back on industry assertions that he is “anti-fracking,” despite his extensive record of being just that. Even anti-fossil fuel activists have raised their own concerns with Polis’s flip-flopping on his energy positions, saying, “the problem with Jared is I’m not sure which Jared will show up.”
On the other hand, there is no question where Stapleton stands on energy issues. In a show of support for the industry, he recently attended the “Energy Proud” rally which brought together thousands of oil and gas workers on the steps of the state Capitol. Stapleton consistently preaches the importance of business certainty and a balanced approach to safely developing Colorado’s natural resources in a responsible, regulated manner, all the while acknowledging the immense economic impact the industry has on our state.
Ironically, what could end up defining Colorado’s political landscape this year is a backdoor fracking-ban ballot measure called Initiative 97. If passed, the measure would increase setbacks fivefold to 2,500 feet, suddenly putting large amounts of Colorado’s nonfederal lands off limits to new oil and gas development. An anti-fossil fuel group called Colorado Rising told the press they have turned in more than 170,000 signatures to put Initiative 97 on the ballot this fall, putting them in a decent position of attaining the 98,462 valid signature requirement. This ballot measure is similar to the campaign Polis funded and then pulled at the last minute back in 2014 which ended up creating a gigantic rift in the Democratic Party.
This time around, Democrats again are speaking out against such large setbacks, which basically amount to a widespread drilling ban on more than 85 percent of the state’s nonfederal lands. While Colorado’s Democratic Party endorsed Initiative 97, key Democratic leaders in the state like Governor John Hickenlooper and former Obama administration Interior Secretary Ken Salazar have both opposed the measure, showing how toxic a debate this can become for the party come November. For what it’s worth, Polis says he doesn’t support it either, calling it inflexible.
But it’s not just the governor’s race where energy issues will be critical. The attorney general’s race between Republican George Brauchler and Democrat Phil Weiser features a similar divide on the issues. Though the attorney general is a position that tends to be overshadowed by whoever occupies the governor’s mansion, given the office’s autonomy, fewer statewide officials have more influence or impact on the energy industry. In Colorado, Weiser announced his support for the Martinez vs. Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) lawsuit brought forth by the environmental organization, Our Children’s Trust.
If that case is successful, it could have wide-ranging ramifications on how the COGCC makes permitting decisions on new oil and gas development. On the other hand, Brauchler has said that he will “vigorously” defend the COGCC position if elected attorney general. Colorado’s State Supreme Court, which ruled in 2016 that the state has supremacy over oil and gas regulations, has agreed to hear the case. Come 2019, whoever is the new chief legal officer for Colorado will have a substantial impact on how the state’s position will be represented.
And we must not forget the state Legislature, where Democrats hold the State House and Republicans control the State Senate by a thin margin. We have already seen the likes of California billionaire Tom Steyer engage early in the process. To date, Steyer has maxed out to five Democratic candidates directly and has his sights set on flipping the State Senate, where Republicans enjoy a slim, single-vote majority.
There is a lot at stake for responsible energy development and one of the largest economic segments in Colorado in November – the lasting impact of these races will be enormous, given that Colorado’s energy industry makes up more than $31 billion of the State’s gross domestic product (GDP) and employs more than 230,000 Coloradans. Colorado has typically been able to bridge differences between parties, collaborate, and take a common-sense approach to issues. But 2018 may represent the most dramatic political divisions and shift on energy issues we’ve ever seen.
About the Author: Matt is the opinion editor for Western Wire, a new news reporting project of the Western Energy Alliance. Established in 2017, Western Wire is the go-to source for news, commentary and analysis on pro-growth, pro-development policies across the West. Western Wire covers the news and viewpoints frequently overlooked when regulations and legislation are debated in Washington, D.C. and across the region. Additionally, Matt, who is based in Denver, Colorado and is with FTI Consulting, works with companies and industry groups in the energy and natural resources sector to secure positive media coverage in local, state and national media markets. He also advises on how to use this media coverage to secure the best possible government-relations outcomes.