John Hickenlooper knows the oil and gas industry. He is an oil geologist by training, and now those skills might be coming in handy as the 61-year-old Colorado governor finds himself in the middle of a ballooning fight over fracking, a drilling technology that’s key to extracting oil and natural gas but controversial for its environmental risks. Hickenlooper is confronting concerns over fracking on multiple levels, including ballot initiatives, lawsuits, and a voting public more polarized than ever. National Journal spoke with Hickenlooper over the phone a week after the elections to talk about these issues in his state — and why others should take notice. Edited excerpts follow.
What does the fracking debate in Colorado bode for the rest of the country?
I think that we are a harbinger of what’s going to happen across the country, and that’s partly why we’ve really put our shoulder to the wheel trying to create a very robust regulatory environment.
Colorado is not the only state dealing with these issues. In different ways, Wyoming, Utah, and Texas all have strong regulatory frameworks. One of the things we’ve talked about — there’s no consensus yet — is to get all of our state regulatory leaders together and say: “Would we be willing to compromise as states and create a Western regulatory framework?” — which obviously would have a lot of benefits if we got there.
Three anti-fracking measures in Boulder, Fort Collins, and Lafayette succeeded by comfortable margins in this year’s election, and another — in Broomfield — narrowly passed, but only after a recount last week. Another recount is required. Do you think these votes imperil your reelection efforts for next year’s election?
I don’t know. If I worried about each decision I made and how it affects my reelection, I’d give myself a headache. The way we try to do it, we make good decisions and have a collaborative approach and a healthy dose of common sense, and then the reelection will take care of itself.
We’re seeing national environmental groups come in and galvanize local residents here against fracking. This isn’t the first time national and outside interests have come into Colorado, of course; we saw it with New York City Mayor Bloomberg and his gun-control campaign. Do you think outside groups should be asserting themselves in the state as much as they are?
It’s not a question of whether they should or shouldn’t. Colorado is a bellwether state. We didn’t plan this. If you look at 2009, 2010, and 2011, those years at the bottom of the Great Recession when there were no jobs anywhere, more young people moved to Denver than any city in America. Not per capita, but real numbers. And I think all those young people coming into your community means you are going to be on the cutting edge of a lot of issues like education reform, like gun safety, like oil and gas exploration.
You’ve described the split-estate issue as “regrettable.” What, if anything, can or should be done on this issue?
That horse is out of the barn. At this point, all these people own those mineral rights. We looked at just a few places like Longmont, the town we’re in lawsuit with, the holdings of the mineral rights owners are immense. There’s a lot of revenue there — tens of millions of dollars just around Longmont. To try and revise the split-estate would require an unbelievable amount of capital.
How do you react to the so-called “fractivists” who oppose all fossil-fuel development?
You have to listen to them. I spent 16 years in the restaurant business. One thing you learn there is when someone is upset, you don’t ignore them, you don’t try to diminish them.
We don’t all use Encyclopedia Britannica anymore. People have all these different facts from all different directions, and it’s becoming — it’s not talked about — but it’s becoming one of the key issues of public policy: Where do get your facts?
Does climate change concern you?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I try to avoid the fight over how bad is it, is the sky falling, how much of it is mankind’s fault, because I think there is so much white noise in the data and such heated opinions you don’t get very far.
Even if we’re not convinced it is going to happen, the very fact is so many of our scientists — 95 percent of top scientists — feel that it is happening very rapidly, and it is the result of human activity. But even if it was only 50/50, I still think we should be sending much more money than we are into better installations, more fuel-efficient cars, getting more natural-gas vehicles instead of refining crude oil, all of these things. Most of them don’t cost that much money.
The debate over fracking in Colorado is polarized, drowning out the examples of where the oil and gas companies and concerned citizens and environmentalists work constructively together. How can you make this better?
What’s so fascinating to me is the two sides almost never talk to each other. They don’t sit down in the same room, and I think it’s fair to say one of the significant roles we see government playing in almost everything is as conveners. That’s a place where state government can make sure to facilitate the discussion.
Are you concerned about efforts to get a statewide fracking ban on the ballot next year?
I’m not aware there is widespread effort. I’ve heard a few people mention the possibility. I’m not aware of aggressive lobbying for it. I think the issue for us, we have this poor policy, a hundred years ago we created the split-estate. Mineral rights under the lands are owned often by someone different than yourself. Our state’s Constitution guarantees the right to access those minerals. If you’re going to ban fracking, you’re saying people can’t get access to their mineral rights. Historically, when the government does that, there is some compensation. At some level it’s a takings under the Fifth Amendment. [This clause states that private property cannot be taken by the government without compensation.]
There are rumors activists may push to get a statewide fracking ban onto the ballot in 2014? What would happen if that passed?
If it was really passed and upheld, it would certainly have severe economic impacts. We have pipeline systems, so we could still get natural gas to people’s furnaces. It’s not like we would run out of natural gas. It would be stop almost all drilling. You can’t drill economically without fracking anymore.