Fracking Task Force Falls Flat: Smart Next Steps Needed

UPDATE: Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst slows down talk of a ballot measure, in a new statement that seems to walk back her comments to the Denver Post's John Frank:

“There have been reports that I may favor a ballot initiative. At this time, I believe a ballot initiative conversation is premature and not an avenue I am interested in pursuing. I look forward to continuing conversations with all parties involved, including mineral rights and surface rights owners, industry, environmental organizations, and local governments and communities on how we can best address the tensions caused by industrial activities in local communities.”

As a reminder, here's what Speaker Hullinghorst told the Post earlier today:

“We may just have to go to an initiative on this — I’m not averse to do that,” she said. [Pols emphasis]

None of this can be considered the definitive word, but you can guess that there are some interesting conservations going on right now behind the scenes. As soon as we have new insight on the state of play here, we'll share it. Original post follows.

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Local Control Task Force About To Flunk Miserably?

Photo courtesy Rep. Jared Polis

Photo courtesy Rep. Jared Polis

As the Denver Post's Mark Jaffe reported this week, the task force appointed last year to study and recommend proposals to improve local control over oil and gas drilling is wrapping up its work–but it's a big and open question what kinds of recommendations the body ultimately plans to make:

After deliberating for nearly five months, the governor's oil and gas task force is still marked by divisions between members seeking more local control of drilling and those representing industry.

A review of the straw-poll voting during the Feb. 3 meeting on 53 proposals made by members shows the six task force members representing industry opposing almost all local-control recommendations.

At the same time task-force members representing local interests pressed for proposals giving communities a greater role in locating oil and gas operations.

Although the panel has been able to unify around a few comparatively minor proposals to make local input on oil and gas permitting decisions a more timely part of the state's existing process, the bigger question of giving local governments a direct role in that decisionmaking has been flatly opposed by the industry's representatives on the task force. We have heard that the recommendations for Gov. John Hickenlooper coming out of this commission may not involve legislation at all, just rule changes to be carried out by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC)–which would be much more limited in scope than statutory changes, and very likely will not satisfy conservationists and local governments who want a meaningful role in these important land use decisions.

We want to stress that until the task force delivers its recommendations, nothing is certain. There's a possibility that the stakeholders can still come together on a substantive proposal, operating on the good-faith assumption that the industry ever had any legitimate desire for that. But from the point of view of anyone but the oil and gas industry and their immediate circle of support, disappointment is increasingly likely based on what we're hearing.

And that means you might be voting on local control next year after all, Colorado! Stay tuned.

Once Again, “Gunmageddon” Fizzles At Colorado Capitol

Empty seats in Colorado House gun bill hearing yesterday.

Empty seats in Colorado House gun bill hearing yesterday.

Yesterday's debate over the repeal of 2013 gun safety legislation, as well as a few new bills to deregulate concealed carry permits and make it easier to transfer machine guns (yes, that's right), featured a number of interesting twists–on the way to an outcome that was more or less a foregone conclusion before the day began. As the Denver Post's Lynn Bartels reports:

The family of victims of gun violence provided the most dramatic testimony Monday afternoon as lawmakers in separate House and Senate committees debated seven Republican gun bills that loosened gun restrictions, expanded gun rights or overturned gun-control legislation Democrats passed two years ago.

"My sister had a right to life," said Jane Dougherty of Littleton, whose sibling was killed at Sandy Hook. "My sister had a right to grow old. … Nobody ever died from a background check."

Many of the arguments for or against the bills are the same ones lawmakers have heard before, but this time around there wasn't the vitriol that marked the 2013 hearings. Instead of hundreds of Coloradans descending on the Capitol, forcing staffers to set up overflow rooms, there were seats available in the committee rooms. [Pols emphasis]

A total of seven gun-related bills were debated, five in the House and two in the Senate. Everyone literate in the process in the building yesterday knew the Senate bills would make it out of committee, and the House bills would die. It's likely that the Senate bills will pass on the strength of that chamber's single-seat Republican majority, after which they will be sent to die in the same House State Affairs "kill committee" that killed five bills yesterday. All of this is just a sideshow, of course, since even if gun rights supporters were to somehow get any of these bills through the House and to Gov. John Hickenlooper's desk, he'll veto them and that's the end of it.

Despite this, both the National Rifle Association and Rocky Mountain Gun Owners heavily promoted yesterday's hearings to their members, urging them to turn out and testify in the large numbers seen when the 2013 laws were up for debate. Last year, the GOP introduced a similar slate of repeal bills, but lost face after the vast crowd of gun rights supporters from 2013 failed to turn out again. The excuse offered at that time by the gun lobby was that the efforts of their members were being directed to the upcoming elections.

So what's the excuse now, you ask?

Dudley Brown, head of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, the state's most strident gun rights group, says the reason Monday appeared fairly tame is many members felt they did their work in last year's election.

Except…they didn't.

After all the promises of vengeance against Democrats after the 2013 gun bill brouhaha, and the subsequent recall elections, it's obvious today that the gun issue did not result in the sweeping success for Republicans that Dudley Brown predicted. During a powerful Republican wave election that had everything to do with national political storylines and little to do with Colorado, Republicans took one chamber of the state legislature by a single seat–just like they did in the last Republican wave year. But they did not take full control of the legislature, and they did not elect a governor who will do their bidding. And for good measure, both Democratic seats lost in the 2013 recalls were retaken by wide margins–one of them by the former state director of the much-reviled Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

So what is this "work" that Dudley Brown has done? We know that Brown has raised tremendous sums of money agitating gun owners. But apart from winning a few more Republican primaries last year, RMGO has done basically nothing to create a political climate that could actually bring about repeal of the 2013 gun safety laws. And if that is not their "work," what is? Where is all that money going?

The fact is, yesterday was their chance: to re-energize the gun owning grassroots after the election, and show that the momentum coming out of the 2013 recalls has not been lost. The failure to even fill these hearings–let alone "overflow" areas to accommodate a larger crowd, and nothing remotely like the massive protests in 2013 in and outside the capitol–tells the story of a battle won two years ago, and a war lost today.

DU Study: State Lax In Enforcing Setback Rules For Drilling

setbackstudy

A new study from the University of Denver Environmental Law Clinic asserts that "Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration is approving oil and gas drilling near homes, schools and businesses without following its own regulations." From their joint press release with the Sierra Club yesterday:

The study recommends the Colorado Oil & Gas Commission (COGCC) reject incomplete drilling permit applications, increase and standardize notification of residents near drilling and fracking, improve online information access and base setback requirements on science and necessary precautions to protect public health and environment.  
 
“The COGCC has a job to do, which is to implement strong regulations and enforce those regulations to protect public health, safety and the environment. When it comes to drilling and fracking near communities, citizens and local government are the ones living with the impacts and their voices need to be ones that are given the most weight in the process,” said Catherine Collentine of the Sierra Club.
 
Colorado regulations, in effect since August, 2013, require pads with multiple oil and gas wells located within 1,000 feet from homes, schools and businesses be placed “as far as possible” from those buildings. The governor and COGCC promised increased enforcement of the regulation last fall, but the analysis found no evidence of additional rigor in permit reviews. [Pols emphasis]
 
Student attorneys at DU Environmental Law Clinic conducted a legal review of 1300 permits issued since August, 2013 and discovered 181 were granted, despite incomplete documentation. Those 181 permits accounted for an immense amount of development: 951 wells, 1221 tanks and 932 separators. Most of the 181 permits for oil and gas wells are located in Weld County – others originated in Adams, Garfield, Larimer and La Plata Counties…
 
“We hope that our analysis will help inform the COGCC as it works to meet its goal of protecting the health and safety of all Coloradoans,” said Lauren Bushong, student attorney with DU’s Environmental Law Clinic. “If followed, our recommendations should allow for greater, and more meaningful, public participation in the permitting process.” 

Read the details of DU's study here. The commission tasked with coming up with legislative proposals to improve local control of oil and gas drilling, which resulted form last year's compromise between proponents of ballot initiatives for that purpose and Gov. John Hickenlooper, is set to deliver their report next month. Should the local control commission not produce a satisfactory result in the legislature, it's likely there will be major combat at the ballot box in 2016 over initiatives to enhance local control and/or further regulate drilling at the state level.

You'll recall that one of the ballot measures last year was to increase setbacks for drilling from existing development.

The principal argument made by supporters of the oil and gas industry in Colorado is that the state "already has" strict regulations on drilling. Obviously, the central claim of this study–that the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission (COGCC) under Gov. Hickenlooper is not properly enforcing drilling regulations as they exist today–does not inspire confidence in their willingness to enforce stronger protections. But this is information that the legislature and (if necessary) the voting public needs to know.

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Colo. Unemployment Dropped More Than Any Other State in 2014

UPDATE: Colorado Democrats celebrate via social media:

demsunemployment

—–

Good news for Colorado, as the Denver Business Journal reports:

Colorado added 4,700 payroll jobs in December and finished 2014 with an unemployment rate of 4.0 percent, the state's lowest since October 2007, the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment reported Tuesday.

The state's private-sector employers added 5,500 positions to their payrolls in December, while government jobs declined by 800 from November levels, the monthly CDLE report indicated…

…A separate survey of Colorado households, which does include those job categories, is used to estimate unemployment rates and the size of the labor force.

That survey showed Colorado's unemployment rate having dropped for nine consecutive months. December's 4.0 percent rate was down a tenth of a percentage point from November and down 2.2 percent from December 2013.

Improving Colorado's economy was the major theme of Gov. John Hickenlooper's re-election campaign in 2014, and the numbers certainly validate that strategy. Sure, there are plenty of different reasons why unemployment is falling so quickly in Colorado, but no matter how you look at it, this is a big talking point for Democrats. Colorado's unemployment rates dropped faster than any other state in the country in 2014, at a time when Democrats controlled the legislature and the Governor's office.

Senate GOP Kills College Tuition Cap Bill

Student life.

Student life.

Via AP and the Fort Collins Coloradoan, a priority from Gov. John Hickenlooper's State of the State address dies at the hands of the GOP-controlled Senate Education Committee:

The Senate Education Committee considered a Democratic bill to extend the current 6 percent hike cap indefinitely. The proposal was part of the Democrats' broader agenda this year to rein in costs for the middle class.

For some students at Colorado State University on Thursday, the proposal sounded like a sound idea.

"Making sure (tuition hikes aren't) ludicrous, like a 20 percent jump? I'm for that," junior health and exercise science major Philip Ephraim said.

The 2011-12 school year saw a 20 percent jump for in-state students over the previous year. Tuition had increased by 9 percent annually for the years before and after that year, according to CSU. The Legislature passed the tuition cap last year, but it was not permanent…

Laura Waters Woods.

Laura Waters Woods.

Of course, the 6% tuition cap bill that died yesterday was only "permanent" for as long as the General Assembly wanted it to be. Any such statute can be changed at any time. But in Hickenlooper's State of the State address, he called for tuition at Colorado state schools to increase by no more than 6%, in an effort to control the growth in the cost of higher education. Which, if you haven't heard, has been a big problem in recent years (see above).

But by fewer than 700 votes in suburban Arvada, Republicans are in charge of the Colorado Senate. Sen. Laura Waters Woods and her hard-right colleagues on the Senate Education Committee are expected to be a major roadblock on education issues for the next two years, and yesterday's action lived up to the predictions.

On Thursday, Education Committee members agreed that Colorado has done a poor job of funding higher education, but the GOP-controlled board voted 5-4 on party lines to reject the measure.

Republicans on the committee pointed out that even the 6 percent cap could mean tuition would double in a couple of decades. They called the cap an arbitrary limit on the institutions and an example of "micromanaging" the schools…

It's called gridlock, folks, and it's what's on tap in the Colorado Senate through 2016. The only thing we can tell you, and the student body of Colorado State University, is everybody had better get used to it.

And elections matter. We'll say that again too.

Something For Everyone In Hick’s 2015 State of the State

hicksos

As the Colorado Independent's Tessa Cheek reports:

Governor John Hickenlooper used his fifth State of the State speech today to paint his legislature, where Republicans control the Senate and Democrats control the House, with a Colorado-ness that reaches beyond party priorities. He touted the new first-ever statewide water plan, quoting Thomas Hornsby Ferril, whose poetry is engraved in the Capitol and that emphasizes common interest: “Here is a land where life is written in water.”

“Representatives of urban areas recognized that locally sourced dairy and food is vital to all of Colorado; while the agricultural areas realized that they could not simply allow urban areas to dry up,” Hickenlooper said of the water plan, noting it involved “the largest civic engagement process in state history.”

Lawmakers and leaders should come together, Hickenlooper suggested, to apply similarly high standards of public input and cooperation to tackle tough questions surrounding topics like oil and gas development and government funding under the Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR)…

The Denver Post's John Frank on Gov. John Hickenlooper's measured comments on the controversial so-called Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR):

Hickenlooper capped his speech by addressing the state's budget situation — which he labeled a "financial thicket" in his inaugural address Tuesday. It's a reference to the possibility of refunds under the state's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, despite underfunded state programs.

"There is a legitimate debate of whether government should be a bit bigger or a bit smaller," the governor said, according to prepared remarks. "But that misses the point. Regardless of size, government must work."
 
But he stopped short of asking for an overhaul of TABOR and avoided taking a direct stance on how to address the issue.

"Some people want to get rid of TABOR, some want to get rid of Amendment 23, others want to get rid of Gallagher. There is no shortage of thorns in this fiscal thicket," he said. "And while we will continue to strategically prune, our state budget can only endure so much cutting. "

The Denver Business Journal:

Referencing the oil and gas industry, Hickenlooper emphasized the number of environmental protections he has added through collaboration with the industry during his first term, then said he looks forward to seeing the recommendations that a task force examining the role of local government in regulating the industry will deliver later this session. But he did not give any parameters as to what kind of increased regulations he may be willing to back in the Legislature.

On the issue of local control of oil and gas drilling, an issue that caused intense infighting among Democrats last year, Hickenlooper didn't offer much in the way of specifics–but the language that he used to describe those proposals, and the competing interests of surface and subsurface property owners, is unlikely to make conservationists very happy. From the speech:

As part of a compromise to keep economically-devastating initiatives off the ballot, [Pols emphasis] we have worked with the Keystone Center and brought long-polarized interests to the same table…

I look forward to the recommendations of this task force, and pledge to work with you and other stakeholders in developing our energy resources, protecting property rights and our natural environment and public health.

The insistence that increasing local control over oil and gas drilling, in particular the setback and "environmental bill of rights" initiatives put forward during last year's debate, would be "economically devastating" broadcasts our Democratic governor's bias on the issue. There is a legitimate conflict between the rights of surface landowners and mineral rights holders needing resolution, but Hickenlooper still appears firmly on the side of mineral rights owners against local communities based on his comments today.

We wonder how politically tenable that position will be for Hickenlooper throughout his second term, as more research on the effects of "fracking" near residential neighborhoods comes out, and the plummeting price of energy caused by OPEC's price war on the frackers eats away at the already-overblown estimates of the economic impact of the industry in Colorado. Might the same changing economics that led Hickenlooper to endorse President Barack Obama's threatened veto of the Keystone XL pipeline soften Hick's hard line against communities worried about fracking in their boundaries?

That's one of the biggest of many questions awaiting Hickenlooper in his "legacy term."

Hickenlooper Hints at TABOR Reform in Inauguration Speech

As Charles Ashby reports for the Grand Junction Sentinel, the winds are a swirling around TABOR reform in Colorado after Gov. John Hickenlooper's inaugural speech on Tuesday:

The governor didn’t offer specifics on issues he intends to address in his second four-year term, possibly intending to save that for the State of the State speech he will give to a joint session of the Legislature on Thursday. Still, he hinted at a few, not the least of which are the revenue caps mandated under the Taxpayers Bill of Rights.

Under that constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1992, revenues that the state collects that exceed the current year’s budget, plus inflation and population growth, are required to be refunded to taxpayers.

But some state legislators are considering asking the voters if the state can retain some or all of those TABOR surpluses to put toward things such as K-12 education or transportation, saying both had dramatic cuts during the recession and aren’t yet fully restored.

Our state Constitution mandates that we increase our expenditures and simultaneously cut taxes,” Hickenlooper said. “If that does not sound like it makes much sense, that’s because it doesn’t. Nothing can grow and shrink at the same time. However, it is also true that careful pruning can allow for quicker, stronger and more effective growth.” [Pols emphasis]

Reporter John Frank of the Denver Post added some more TABOR-reform flavor from yesterday's festivities. Gov. Hickenlooper invited former Governors of Colorado to offer advice on his second term in office, and former Democratic Gov. Roy Romer got right to the point:

“My advice is, governor, lead a movement in this state to repeal the TABOR amendment,” he said to cheers from the crowd at the Fillmore Auditorium, where guests paid $100-a-plate to attend. “We need to invest in the future of our children’s education and the infrastructure of this state. We need to return that power, that authority, that decision, to the people’s representative, the legislature and the governor.”

Romer kept at it. “We need to revise this tax system and do what the conservatives do — invest in the future of this state,” he continued. “We need to revise the TABOR amendment and get a better tax system it needs not a political election, it needs a movement. Governor, lead that movement.”

As much as Republicans will be squawking about any suggested reform to TABOR, there's reason to suggest that this is more than just a talking point. Republican Senate President Bill Cadman's first piece of legislation this session deals with TABOR adjustments — though certainly not on the level that Colorado really needs. We couldn't sum up the problem any better than Hickenlooper did last night, when he said, "Nothing can grow and shrink at the same time." Will Republicans heed that reality?

Bob Beauprez Needs to Sell a Shitload of Buffaloes

Beauprez-CampaignFinance

Bob Beauprez owes Bob Beauprez a lot of money.

Colorado Republicans are preparing for a tough campaign for State Party Chair now that Steve House has made it clear that he will challenge two-term Chair Ryan Call in March. There are many reasons why Call is facing a challenge despite a pretty successful 2014 election cycle, but much of the debate involves how money is being spent by the State GOP.

There are two main financial questions that are playing a significant role here. The first, which we've discussed before, is a debate about whether or not the State Party Chair should continue to earn a hefty monthly salary; Call is paid about $8,300 per month by the State Party, and many of the GOP faithful would like to return to the pre-Dick Wadhams era when the Chair earned only a small stipend. 

The second big financial question is about whether the State Party should assist former gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez in paying off more than a million dollars of campaign debt. The Republican buffalo rancher — that would be Beauprez — has nearly $1.1 million in outstanding loans from his campaign. Beauprez's campaign committee is also $50,550 in the red, a balance that must be taken care of at some point.

Most of the money loaned to Beauprez's campaign came from his own checkbook, and there is some debate about whether or not the Republican Party should help him raise money to refresh his own coffers. There is also some question about whether Beauprez had a deal with Call to assist him in paying off his rather large campaign debt. Throw in the question of whether Republicans funded efforts to kneecap gubernatorial candidate Tom Tancredo, and you can see where this starts to get complicated.

That this discussion is even taking place is somewhat odd when you consider that the ability to finance a campaign was the #1 selling point of Beauprez as the Republican nominee for Governor; the vast majority of his support in advance of the June Primary came from the knowledge that he was the only GOP candidate with any hope of raising serious money.

It was because Beauprez was able to write checks to himself that Republicans decided to give him another shot at the nomination — should those same Republicans now help pay off Beauprez's debt even though he didn't win in November? The answer to that question may well determine whether Ryan Call still has a job in March.

Hickenlooper Evolves On Legal Weed

Weed, with money.

Weed, with money.

Lots of discussion today about Gov. John Hickenlooper's interview on CBS' 60 Minutes this weekend (video above). One year into Colorado's experiment with legalized marijuana, Hickenlooper's outlook appears to have brightened considerably:

Bill Whitaker: In the beginning you didn't think it was a good idea?

Gov. John Hickenlooper: No. I opposed it. You know, and I opposed it and I think even after the election if I'd had a magic wand and I could wave the wand I probably would've reversed it and had the initiative fail. But now, I look at it and I'm not so sure I'd do that even if I had such a wand. I mean, I think we've made a lot of progress. And, you know, still a lot of work to be done. But I think we might actually create a system that can work.

For context, here's what Hickenlooper had to say last year about marijuana in Colorado in a debate against Bob Beauprez, who openly favored repealing Colorado's Amendment 64:

Asked if he thought it was reckless for Colorado voters to approve legal marijuana in 2012, Hickenlooper kept going.

“I think for us to do that without having all the data, there is not enough data, and to a certain extent you could say it was reckless,” he said. “I’m not saying it was reckless because I’ll get quoted everywhere, but if it was up to me, I wouldn’t have done it, right? I opposed it from the very beginning.

“In matter of fact, all right, what the hell — I’ll say it was reckless.”

Back in March, Hickenlooper went even further:

Keeping the state safe in this new era is a top priority for Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. "I think our job right now is to regulate it vigorously, make sure that kids don't get it. Make sure people don't drive when they're high. And if it turns out it is harming our state — we're going to do everything we can to make sure it doesn't — but if it does, we're going to make sure the public hears that as well. Let's say it doesn't work out, I want to be able to say, 'We did everything we could to try and make sure this transition to recreational, legalized marijuana was done effectively, fairly and still didn't work.' And then the voters should look at it again."

We take Hickenlooper at face value on his "evolution" over legal marijuana, since we don't think the apparent success of legalization–both the lack of societal harm or the federal government's so-far tolerance for it–could have been predicted in 2012. Marijuana proponents will of course argue that there was never any real societal danger from legalization, but we don't think it's unreasonable for others to have been skeptical about that. Either way, the experience of marijuana legalization in Colorado is increasingly undeniable: plenty of harm reduction and revenue, with little actual downside. After decades of zero-tolerance criminal prohibition, the last year of the sky not falling in Colorado is proving a lot of people very, very wrong.

And when even beer-baron Gov. Hickenlooper admits it, you can believe it.

ICYMI: Hickenlooper Finally Picks New Chief of Staff

From Lynn Bartels at the Denver Post, Gov. John Hickenlooper has selected well-known Denver attorney Doug Friednash to be his new Chief of Staff:

Friednash, a former state lawmaker, also served as the city attorney for Denver Mayor Michael Hancock before joining the Brownstein firm.

Friednash replaces Roxane White, who resigned last year to oversee a national nursing program serving first-time moms living in poverty. She also served as Hickenlooper’s chief of staff when he was mayor of Denver.

Friednash won't officially sit behind his new desk until February 2. Interim Chief of Staff Kevin Patterson will move to a new "Chief Administrative Officer" role within the Governor's office.

Top 10 Stories of 2014: The Final Four

We are finishing up our Top 10 Stories of 2014 by posting the final four all at once.

As we realized while writing the first six entries, there isn’t much that we can say about the biggest stories of 2014 that hasn’t already been written in this space. With 2015 already upon us, it’s time to close this series out.

With that, we give you the entire list of our Top 10 Stories of 2014. Follow the links below for the first six entries, or follow the jump to read the final four in its entirety.

#10: Colorado’s Two-Headed Electorate
#9: Unfinished Business in Jefferson County
#8: Cory Gardner Runs for U.S. Senate
#7: Frackapalooza!
#6: Colorado GOP Goes WTF
#5: So Much for Those Recalls
#4: Republicans Battle Each Other But Take Control of State Senate (below)
#3: Coffman Crushes Romanoff in CD-6 (below)
#2: Hick Finds His Groove, and Another Bad Loss for Beauprez (below)
#1: Gardner Wins Senate Seat, Ending Long Career for Mark Udall (below)

 

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Hickenlooper: Veto Keystone XL

keystone-xl-southern-section-starts-transcanada-1-537x357

The Denver Post's Mark Matthews–didn't see this coming, did you?

Speaking to reporters outside the White House, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said Tuesday afternoon that he supported the administration’s pledge to veto new legislation from Congress that would fast-track construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline…

Hickenlooper said Obama, a fellow Democrat, was making the right call in opposing the U.S.-Canada oil pipeline.

“He has not been persuaded that this something in the best interest — long-term — of the United States,” Hickenlooper said. “I know there are a lot of people in Colorado who disagree with that (but) … with the price of oil down as low as it is, I don’t think the Keystone pipeline makes sense.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Support for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would speed the passage Canadian heavy crude oil to refineries and export terminals on the Gulf Coast, has become an article of faith for just about every energy industry backer and surrogate in Colorado politics. This is despite the fact that Colorado already has a pipeline connection from Commerce City to Alberta, and the Keystone XL pipeline would never enter the state. In fact, the biggest quantifiable effect completion of the Keystone XL pipeline on Colorado would have is an increase in local gas prices, as Canadian crude is routed to global markets via the Gulf Coast. The campaign trail claims by Cory Gardner last year that Keystone XL would create "thousands of jobs in Colorado" were simply hogwash, unsupported by any objective evidence.

And of course, there is the tar sands are really bad for the planet angle.

With that said, and Gov. John Hickenlooper makes this pretty clear, the biggest reason why Keystone XL is quickly becoming a nonstarter is the plunging global price of oil–which changes the economics of exporting massive quantities of low grade Canadian crude oil, well, anywhere. Now that low oil prices and a glut of supply have taken the immediate pressure off, a rational conversation about this project reveals a high cost with dubious benefits at best to the American economy.

It may not be as satisfying, but sometimes the bottom line speaks louder than a million protesters.

Top Ten Stories of 2014: Frackapalooza! (#7)

Photo courtesy Rep. Jared Polis

Photo courtesy Rep. Jared Polis

Colorado has a long history as an energy-producing state, but the recent explosion of hydraulic fracture drilling to extract oil and natural gas from previously uneconomic deposits has spread the impacts of drilling to communities that have never seen it before. Urbanization of the Front Range of Colorado has put residential communities in direct conflict with subsurface mineral rights owners, making energy development an up close and personal issue for large population centers in addition to the heavily drilled areas of the rural Western Slope and Weld County.

In 2013 and 2014, Front Range cities continued to pass bans and moratoria on "fracking" within their municipal boundaries. Though they enjoyed popular support, these bans have generally not fared well in court challenges. In 1992, the Colorado Supreme Court struck down a similar ban in Greeley, and in 1996 ruled that subsurface mineral property rights have the same validity as surface property rights. These precedents have resulted in most of these recent measures being thrown out in court.

The result, say local governments and conservation activists, is inappropriate heavy industrial land use in residential areas. They argue the rights of subsurface mineral owners to extract their holdings is directly impacting surface property values–and to a degree yet to be fully determined, the health of affected residents. In the absence of conclusive studies on the impact of fracking, but with much evidence to suggest considerable harm being done, New York state has banned the practice altogether.

Into this contentious atmosphere stepped Rep. Jared Polis of Boulder this year. Polis, a wealthy young internet entrepreneur and one of the major architects of the "Blueprint," owns property in Weld County. In the summer of 2013, a drilling operation was set up on adjacent property that was later found to be in violation of setback rules from existing structures, and fined tens of thousands of dollars. That experience contributed to Polis' activism on the issue subsequently, and his support for ballot initiatives then being developed to give local communities greater control over oil and gas drilling.

Fracking fluid.

Fracking fluid.

The threat of Polis' wealth behind initiatives to regulate the oil and gas industry led to what can best be described as a wholesale freakout by the industry and its vast army of well-paid PR flacks, surrogates, and politicians on both sides of the aisle. This leads to an extremely important fact that everyone needs to understand: in addition to basically total control of the Colorado GOP, the oil and gas industry also wields significant influence in the Colorado Democratic Party. Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper was elected in significant part due to a belief that he could bring pro-energy and environmentalist Democrats together, and on some occasions he has done so–like the state's new air quality management rules. At other times, though, Hickenlooper has been nothing short of oafish on energy issues, enraging the left with his wildly deceptive claims to have "drank fracking fluid."

The power wielded by the energy industry behind the scenes in Democratic politics led to an ugly period this summer, in which Rep. Polis was attacked publicly and privately by fellow Democrats for daring to push these "divisive" local control ballot measures in a tight election year. Industry-friendly Democrats "concern trolled" the party with dire warnings of the oil and gas money that would flood the state to defeat these measures, absolutely certain, despite evidence to the contrary, that this would result in devastating collateral damage to Democrats up and down the ticket.

To counter those biased predictuions, supporters pointed to their own polling, showing local control ballot measures enjoyed broad support, and likely would pass in a statewide vote–just as fracking bans and moratoria have fared well in local votes. Among rank-and-file Democrats, support for environmental and health protections over unbridled drilling is a lopsided no-brainer. In fact, there's a pretty good argument to be made that Democrats in Colorado have weakened their core base of support by consistently running–and governing–to the right of base Democrats on energy development.

Rep. Jared Polis.

Rep. Jared Polis.

In the end, as we reported in August, Polis, Hickenlooper, and stakeholders on both sides reached a temporary compromise that resulted in the withdrawal of the drilling setback and "environmental bill of rights" initiatives Polis was supporting. Polis' compromise, it's fair to say, was not received well by the more strident anti-fracking activists in Colorado, though mainstream groups like Conservation Colorado praised it. The commission created by their agreement to make recommendations on enhancing local control legislatively is set to report in February of next year. For his part, Polis has said that he will go back to the ballot if the commission doesn't come up with effective proposals, or the legislature doesn't pass them. Everything we know about this compromise suggests that Polis made the deal in good faith with his fellow Democrat Gov. Hickenlooper, and that he will indeed be back if it doesn't make tangible progress.

Meanwhile, the energy industry has funded a lavish public relations campaign to promote fracking as a safe source of domestic energy. This campaign has consistently relied on deceptive claims about the effects of a statewide ban on fracking, even though nothing Polis supported in 2014 comes anywhere close. Perhaps most importantly, this issue is not playing out in a vacuum: the shale energy boom in the United States has awakened the global energy export cartel OPEC, and a global price war driving energy prices down to levels that make extraction unprofitable could do more to curtail fracking's local growth than anything else–at least for the near-term future.

Bottom line: the conflict between the Old West's mineral wealth and the New West's quality of life has grown with the scale of both, and with greater understanding of the consequences of our actions. A great metropolis has grown up over minerals that used to be either inaccessible or accessible without impacting residential populations, creating new questions our old laws may not be equipped to settle. If the final chapter of this conflict is written in our lifetimes, we'll be very surprised.

But we believe our descendants will judge us on our protection of the surface over the minerals beneath it.

Top 10 Stories of 2014: Cory Gardner Runs for U.S. Senate (#8)

Republican Cory Gardner

Next month Republican Cory Gardner will be sworn-in as Colorado's newest U.S. Senator. This story is not about that.

In fact, let's forget about the outcome of the 2014 Election altogether (at least for the purposes of the words that follow). Regardless of what happened in November, one of the biggest political stories in Colorado in 2014 was Gardner's surprise decision to jump into a Senate race that Republicans had no hope of winning against incumbent Democrat Mark Udall. Gardner's candidacy for Senate changed the entire election cycle and re-aligned the Republican ticket up and down the ballot, for better or worse. This is not to downplay the significance of Gardner's victory in November; no matter how the results shook out, Gardner's decision to run for U.S. Senate was important and impactful enough on its own to warrant a place in our Top 10 Stories of 2014.

It was late February when Gardner announced his Senate run, and within a matter of weeks he had already cleared a crowded field of candidates on the Republican side. That the seas parted so easily for Gardner (with some holdout from Owen Hill) is testament to the fact that he was clearly the best candidate Republicans could find in 2014. But it wasn't just that Gardner was an appealing candidate on his own; like being the most attractive person in a small room, Gardner was an exciting choice for Republicans who were otherwise stuck with an historically-bad field of candidates. It's easy to forget today just how bad things looked for the GOP one year ago.

Rep. Amy Stephens and Sen. Owen Hill.

Amy Stephens and Owen Hill were not so good at running for U.S. Senate.

The three top GOP contenders for Senate (Ken Buck, Amy Stephens, and Owen Hill) finished the Q4 2013 fundraising period by raising about $200,000…combined. Buck, Stephens, and Hill ended up posting 3 of the 10 worst fundraising quarters in Colorado since 2000. To put these numbers in perspective, Republican Rep. Mike Coffman spent more money in Q4 than the three top Republican Senate candidates managed to bring in the door (here's the chart if you want the details). Dig a little deeper, however, and the numbers got much worse; including outstanding loans and debts, Stephens actually finished 2013 with a negative balance of $11,000 (Gardner even offered to help pay off Stephens' debts as part of the deal to get her to drop out).

Gardner wasn't just the best chance that Republicans had in 2014 — he was really the only option. Gardner's sketchy record on policy issues was irrelevant when it was clear that he was the only GOP candidate who could rub two nickels together. Republicans would have eventually raised money for whomever emerged from the June Primary, but Gardner was the only candidate who could raise enough money to support a real statewide field effort for the GOP — something which would benefit every other race down the ballot. Even if Gardner had failed to win the Senate race, his candidacy was critical for Republicans in general; it's probably fair to say that Republicans could not have taken control of the State Senate without Gardner's cherubic mug churning out both dollars and voters. Resources aside, Gardner's candidacy also gave Republicans a feeling of confidence that they hadn't felt since former Gov. Bill Owens was coasting to an easy re-election victory in 2002.

Gardner's candidacy also shifted the priorities of Colorado Republicans. Bob Beauprez would probably not have been the GOP nominee for Governor if not for his ability to partially self-fund a challenge to Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper; Republicans certainly wanted to defeat the incumbent Governor, but it was more important for Beauprez's campaign to support — or at least, not harm — Gardner's bid for Senate. There are many reasons that Ken Buck lost his 2010 Senate race against Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet, and the absurd candidacy of Republican Dan Maes for Governor sits near the top of that list. With Gardner in the race for Senate, Republicans felt a new urgency to make sure that Tom Tancredo was not their nominee for Governor, lest his well-known and divisive positions poison the electorate. At times, Beauprez's campaign for Governor almost became an afterthought, with the outcome justifying the strategic approach; Colorado Republicans would take a Gardner win and a Beauprez loss 10 out of 10 times.

Finally, Gardner's Senate candidacy made room for other prominent Republicans in 2014. Gardner backed Buck to replace him in CD-4, and the GOP's erstwhile Senate "frontrunner" had little trouble winning a crowded Primary to win a seat that was virtually impossible for Democrats to challenge in a General Election. After the November election, Buck was voted by his peers as the "President" of the freshman class of Republican Members of Congress, which should only benefit other Colorado Republicans. Buck also went on to hire GOP gubernatorial candidate Greg Brophy as his Chief of Staff, giving the former State Senator someplace to land within the Republican infrastructure.

Cory Gardner's ascension to the U.S. Senate is the biggest political story in Colorado in 2014 (spoiler alert). That he decided to run for Senate at all is a Top 10 story in itself.