In Colorado, fracking might be more common than marijuana. It's certainly more controversial.
The state's Democratic governor, John Hickenlooper, is finding himself surrounded — quite literally — by fights over fracking, a drilling technology that's key to extracting oil and natural gas but controversial for its environmental risks. Numerous suburban communities north of Denver are debating to what extent, if at all, they should allow fracking.
National Journal spoke with Hickenlooper about his state's recent elections that affected fracking, as well as education reform. Edited excerpts follow.
What does the fracking debate in Colorado bode for the rest of the country?
I think 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?"
Four Colorado cities — Boulder, Fort Collins, Lafayette, and Broomfield, voted on anti-fracking measures. The first three passed by comfortable margins. Broomfield's measure initially failed; a recount had it passing, and another recount is now required. With your election coming next year, do these anti-fracking votes imperil your efforts?
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.
Is it politically realistic for Democrats to embrace a ban on fracking, not just in Colorado but nationally?
I try not to look at these things [based on] whether they're politically wise. If you look at the last 12 months, that's probably pretty evident. The real question for Democrats and Republicans is, is fracking truly harmful? Part of what we have is two issues — one is the environmental-safety issue around fracking and are there problems, are people in the area subjected to undo health risks? The second one is land-use planning. Do we want to have industrial processes close to our schools and homes? And on the latter one, most people would say they prefer not to have a drill rig there for three months or collection tanks for 10 years. They would much prefer not to have that happen. That's when it gets back to the split-estate issue [where surface landowners don't own their subsurface mineral rights.]
Rumors suggest that activists may push to get a statewide fracking ban on 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 stop almost all drilling. You can't drill economically without fracking anymore.
National environmental groups are now coming in and galvanizing residents against fracking. We saw a similar phenomenon here with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's gun-control campaign. Do you think outside groups should be asserting themselves in Colorado 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 other city in America. Not per capita, but real numbers. 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.
This is the United States of America. We have free speech. It's a basic tenet of everything. We accept it. What I try to do is hold people accountable for making sure that they don't distort the facts.
Do you take the rejection of the ballot initiative on education, including a tax increase, as a warning that voters still don't trust government to spend their money wisely?
Yeah, part of it. Part of it was what I heard from people — that they thought it was too much money, and I think there was an inherent mistrust. I think that is a fair analysis. Talk to Arne Duncan, the Education secretary. This was one of the most significant, one of the most comprehensive, if not the most comprehensive, education reform in the history of the United States. We had some great, great stuff in there. It just didn't — and we could see it was coming. The feeling out there was, it was just too much, and mistrust is fair.