Mountain States

Midterm Spotlight: Democrats in Colorado are Eerily Quiet on Oil and Natural Gas Ahead of Midterm Elections

With just four days until the 2022 midterm elections, it’s worth noting that during this election season, it’s been eerily quiet on any notable pushes to decrease oil and natural gas production in Colorado, a state trending blue with some of the nation’s toughest regulations. In fact, this is the first election cycle in a decade that activists have been silent on efforts to ban hydraulic fracking.

And it’s not like the Democrats running on the top of the ticket for reelection in Colorado have ever been shy about talking up energy and environment issues, though both Sen. Michael Bennet and Gov. Jared Polis have undergone shifts and evolutions over the years.  Yet, this midterm election is set against a backdrop of a global energy crisis and high prices which have put a spotlight on the need for increased U.S. oil and natural gas – a trend we’ve seen candidates on both sides of the aisle embracing in energy-rich states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Colorado remains among the top producing oil and natural gas states in the nation, so maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Democrats are repositioning themselves again in support of domestic energy production. It was just two years ago that then-Gov. John Hickenlooper “urged for a rapid transition away from oil and natural gas,” but now candidates now coming back around to expressing support for domestic energy production.

U.S. Senate Campaign

In the U.S. Senate race, Bennet is facing Republican challenger Joe O’Dea. While the two don’t agree on much, they do see the need for natural gas and to streamline federal permitting for energy projects.

Bennet has voiced ongoing support for oil and natural gas, including speaking out against fracking bans and acknowledging the role of natural gas in the energy transition and for Colorado’s economy. In a debate last month on the Western Slope – a major natural gas producing region – Bennet said:

“This country is going to lead the transition to renewable energy. We’ve got to get to net-zero by 2050 — and even when we get there, we’re still going to be using fossil fuels.” (emphasis added)

However, Bennet has also supported the majority of Pres. Biden’s energy agenda and has been noticeably silent on the ban on oil and natural gas leasing on federal lands, which is a critical industry on the Western Slope where he made the comments on supporting these fuels.

Bennet previously acknowledged the economic and environmental of natural gas and wrote in a 2015 USA Today op-ed:

“Similarly, when Democrats oppose natural gas, we fail to appreciate both its importance to small town economies and its pivotal role in reducing coal production. The transition to clean energy will not happen overnight. Saying no to responsible production of natural gas — which emits half the carbon of the dirtiest coal and is the cleanest fossil fuel — surrenders progress for purity.” (emphasis added)

However, debate remains on Bennet’s mixed record. During the Obama administration, Bennet said in a meeting in Boulder that he supported the Keystone XL pipeline, but reversed his position by the time Biden took office, backing the president’s decision to cancel the project in 2021. Bennet is also in support of a windfall profits tax, a tax that proponents have argued will increase production and lower prices. In reality, as Energy in Depth has pointed out, this tax does the opposite.

A Congressional Research Service report analyzing the 1980 windfall profit tax and found it did not achieve what its backers promised:

“From 1980 to 1988, the WPT may have reduced domestic oil production anywhere from 1.2 percent to 8.0 percent (320 to 1,269 million barrels). Dependence on imported oil grew from between 3 percent and 13 percent.” (emphasis added)

In contrast, O’Dea has promised to reverse course on what he’s called a “war on energy” from political leaders. During that Western Slope debate, O’Dea said:

“Even a carpenter like myself can figure out once we move the energy cost down inflation will subside.”

O’Dea has also called for increased oil and natural gas production on federal lands after Biden implemented a ban on leasing in early 2021:

“We’re not letting people drill — which, anytime you stifle the supply, you’re going to increase the price. That’s what’s going on right now. We’ve got to get these federal leases back to where good clean Colorado companies can drill for gas and oil here and go back to work.” (emphasis added)

Gubernatorial Campaign

Democratic candidate and incumbent Gov. Jared Polis also seems less than eager this election cycle to back measures that decrease oil and natural gas production and raise the price of gas at the pump.

Recall that when Gov. Polis first successfully ran for office in 2018, he opposed Prop 112, the defeated ballot measure that would have extended setback distance for oil and natural gas operations to 2,000 feet, in what was seen as a blow to “Keep It In The Ground” activists. Further, Polis declined to support a national climate litigation campaign being led by Boulder that would have far-reaching implications, including raising the price of gas at the pump.

However, after assuming office, Polis did sign SB 181 into law, which dramatically overhauled the state’s oil and natural gas regulations, resulting in some of the toughest rules in the nation. SB 181’s rulemaking process also led to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission – which is appointed by Polis – to implement its own 2,000-foot setback, despite voters rejecting such a policy only two years earlier.

Most recently, Polis reversed course on a policy position that will likely significantly increase the price of gasoline at the pump. When the Environmental Protection Agency announced it would tighten the state’s ozone attainment level, Polis called it “good news” during an interview with CPR in June:

The EPA downgrade is good news. What it does for the state is it gives the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment the ability to oversee about 300 more sites; about 200 of those are oil and gas, 100 are other emission sites.” (emphasis added)

Polis has since backtracked and requested the EPA grant the ozone waiver after the agency made it clear that Coloradans will be required to buy reformulated gasoline, which is 20 to 30 cents more expensive per gallon, starting next summer. EPA denied the belated request from Polis, and it seems certain Colorado drivers will soon be paying more at the pump.

Gov. Polis has found himself between a rock and a hard place with his campaign centered around “saving people money”, and his past stances that would drive already soaring energy prices even higher, at a time when Coloradans are looking to pay less money at the pump.

Heidi Ganahl, Polis’ opponent in the race and a member of the CU Board of Regents, has called for robust oil and natural gas production in Colorado to boost U.S. energy independence:

“First and foremost, I believe we need to have an all-of-the-above energy approach and get our oil and gas industry back to work. We produce some of the cleanest energy on the planet right here in Colorado with some of the strictest regulations, so if we need to produce oil and gas, we should do it right here in Colorado where we know we are taking care of the environment and being good stewards. Honestly, energy independence has never been more important watching what’s happening in Ukraine.” (emphasis added)

Bottom Line: While there has largely been bipartisan support for oil and natural gas in high-producing energy states, top Democrats in Colorado have been quieter, though their conspicuous absence on climate issues is perhaps just as telling. Energy security and affordability are top of mind for voters all across America, and Colorado is no exception. Candidates on both sides of the aisle recognize the importance of energy affordability and reliability – and how Colorado’s oil and natural gas industry is a key solution in achieving this.

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