Hickenlooper on Colorado’s Fracking State

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks during day two of the Democratic National Convention at Time Warner Cable Arena on September 5, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
National Journal
Amy Harder
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Amy Harder
Nov. 21, 2013, 11:41 a.m.

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.

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