Hickenlooper changes his attitude, not his position on oil and gas rules

Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Hickenlooper has taken some heat for his comments to The Daily Sentinel on the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission rules. His GOP opponents accuse him of flip-flopping on the issue. Even the normally friendly Denver Post says his explanation muddies, more than clarifies, his position.

There is little support for Republican Scott McInnis’ claim that Hickenlooper has fundamentally changed his position. As evidence of a “flip-flop,” McInnis cites Hickenlooper’s statement in the Sentinel that “both of my opponents want to rewrite the rules, but that would be a mistake.” The Denver mayor added, “I would not throw out or roll back rules regulating oil and gas extraction in our state.”

“Until he switched sides” recently, McInnis asserted, Hickenlooper agreed with him that the rules should be scrapped or revised to benefit the industry.

However, as the Denver Post points out, “Hickenlooper has never called for a major revision of the rules.” His statement is neither a flip-flop nor a new position.

A Hickenlooper spokesman told the Colorado Independent last May that the mayor did not “want to open up the rules process again ... and he agrees with where it ended up.” He has not essentially changed that position.

However, the Post said, Hickenlooper’s earlier references to the rules as “onerous” and “excessive” has left his true position open to interpretation. Some industry leaders interpreted Hickenlooper’s statement that he was “coming from a very different place than Gov. Ritter” as a signal that he would make major changes in the rules. He even told Bill Ritter he thought the rule-making process had been flawed.

Early in his campaign, Hickenlooper was overly sympathetic to oil and gas companies’ complaints that they were excluded from the rule-making process. “What happened was,” he said, “the environmentalists went way overboard” to push for “things they thought were very important ... The oil and gas people weren’t in the room.”

Ritter called that “a bad mischaracterization” of how the rules evolved through numerous meetings and hearings with stakeholder groups and concerned individuals.

The environmentalists, who felt outnumbered, outspent, outlawyered and outshouted throughout the process, called it much worse.

By now, if Hickenlooper has talked to anyone involved with the hearings on the rules, or to anyone who attended the public meetings, he must know how distorted the industry claims are.

He also recognizes that “this year Colorado is on track to have the second busiest year for gas permitting in our state’s history. We are also the Rocky Mountain regional leader in well starts and growth in active drilling rigs.”

These facts demolish another industry complaint. Those who insisted the cost of regulation would drive the industry from the state could not have been more mistaken. Economic forces curtailed drilling in Colorado, and only changed economic circumstances will bring it back.

What has changed in Hickenlooper’s latest comments on the oil and gas rules is not his position, but his attitude. He stands in the same place, committed to retaining the rules while encouraging flexibility in their implementation, but presents the situation differently.

His early statements called out villains and consoled victims. Overreaching environmentalists, he maintained, had run roughshod over the industry, not even allowing them to participate in the rule- making process. It was a simple view of a complex issue. And it was not true.

The mayor’s latest statement is much more balanced. Bombast gives way to understatement. Instead of bashing environmentalists, he concludes, “At times, this rule-making process was unnecessarily divisive.”

Extolling the economic importance of both the environment and the energy industry, Hickenlooper pledges not to reopen the rules for revision by the industry.

Hickenlooper emerges from this oil and gas dustup a better candidate. In his own words, the experience taught him “the truth is that most of our problems are not given to simple black-and-white, good-versus-evil descriptions. And while it may make it harder to campaign by acknowledging that truth, it is the only responsible way to govern.”

Maybe, as Hickenlooper says, he is a poor politician. But he sounds increasingly like a wise governor.

Bill Grant lives in Grand Junction. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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