Will Hickenlooper represent entire state or be a shill for big energy?
John Hickenlooper’s enthusiastic reception in Mesa County recently suggests he could become the candidate to take the Western Slope vote for the Democrats in November.
A fiscal conservative, Hickenlooper should appeal to both conservative Democrats and moderate independents and Republicans on the Western Slope.
If he can bring these groups together without alienating more liberal Democrats and green independents, Hickenlooper could lead a coalition that could break the hegemony of the GOP on the Western Slope.
But, while he is attractive to Western Slope voters, Hickenlooper needs to be more sensitive to their concerns. For example, his response to the oil and gas rules passed under Gov. Bill Ritter’s administration can help him or hurt him on the Western Slope.
So far, he has chosen the side of the energy companies. “They’ll recognize that I’m coming from a different place than Governor Ritter,” he said of the industry.
Improbable as it might seem, a grassroots coalition of Western Slope property owners, sporting groups, recreational industries, public health advocates, wildlife managers and ordinary citizens already exists. It formed to support rules to regulate oil and gas drilling.
Unfortunately, these are the Western Slope citizens Hickenlooper dismissively referred to when he told The Denver Post that “the environmentalists went way overboard, I think, and pushed very hard … for certain things they thought were very important.”
Not only will some voters who support the rules resent being called “environmentalists,” they might question why Hickenlooper thinks it inappropriate for them to push hard for their issues at public hearings designed to bring their concerns to the government.
Further distancing him from his natural Western Slope base is Hickenlooper’s contention that, when the rules were being drafted, “The oil and gas people weren’t in the room. They felt betrayed, so they pushed back really hard” against regulation. If it weren’t so serious, this contention would be laughable.
The initial pre-draft of the rules was written by the professional state staff and presented to all stakeholders prior to the first public discussion. The industry objected to the process because they contend that they should have been allowed to help write the preliminary draft.
That is how it was done under the Bush administration when the industry was allowed to write the rules, but Gov. Ritter changed that by leveling the playing field.
Failing to prevail against the rules on their merits, the oil and gas companies deployed the classic obstructionist tactic of attacking the process. Despite having been treated exactly as other stakeholders in the extensive public hearings and private meetings, the oil and gas industry cried foul, claiming the were not at the table.
They got Hickenlooper’s ear. Referring to the public hearings as a “flawed process,” he told The Denver Post, “I think the biggest problem wasn’t necessarily where we ended up with the rules. It was how we got there.”
In other words, forget about the substance of the rules, attack the process.
Some observers believe the issue will go away as the industry begins to recover from recession and finds the rules present no barrier to responsible energy development. It is their hope that, by November, the rules will be a non-issue as the industry gets busy developing gas in conformance with the new rules.
However, in the likely event that the energy companies continue to push against sensible regulation, Hickenlooper owes it to Western Slope residents to listen to them on the issue.
As Gov. Ritter can attest, Western Slope Democrats can be among the governor’s most loyal supporters. But when it comes to defending their health, homes and quality of life, they can be formidable opponents.
If Hickenlooper wants the enthusiastic support of Western Slope Democrats, he needs to give a fair hearing to their issues, beginning with the drilling rules.
Otherwise, the mayor will seem just another Denver politician who puts the welfare of corporations before that of the people. He may still win the governorship with strong support from the Front Range, but he will not reign over a peaceable kingdom in the west.
Bill Grant lives in Grand Junction. He can be reached at.