Q&A

John Hickenlooper’s Delicate Fracking Dance

The Democratic governor of Colorado walks the line between prosperity and environmentalism.

CHARLOTTE, NC - SEPTEMBER 05: 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. The DNC that will run through September 7, will nominate U.S. President Barack Obama as the Democratic presidential candidate. 
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Amy Harder
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Amy Harder
Nov. 21, 2013, 4 p.m.

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. 

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