Newest Democratic hopefuls split on climate

Source: Mark K. Matthews, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper have a fair bit in common. Both are white men in their late 60s running for president from the perch of a Western governorship, to name just a few similarities.

But on the issue of climate change, there’s enough of a difference between the two Democratic candidates that the split could have an outsized impact on both their campaigns.

And those differences may provide a glimpse on whether 2020 will be a breakout year for climate politics — at least among Democratic primary voters.

Inslee, without question, is running on a climate-focused platform.

He launched his campaign last week with the claim that he would be the “only candidate who will make defeating climate change our nation’s No. 1 priority” (Greenwire, March 1).

As a long-serving congressman, Inslee was part of a failed effort a decade ago to turn carbon cap-and-trade legislation into federal law. As a two-term governor, he’s championed the idea of using carbon taxes to combat global warming. A super political action committee that supports him, called Act Now on Climate, just dropped $250,000 on his behalf for digital ads.

Hickenlooper is a different story.

The presidential campaign video he rolled out yesterday only touches on climate issues — and it does so in a way that is more of a statement on his ability to work with different interest groups than a desire to save the world from global warming.

“We brought environmentalists and oil and gas companies to the table to create the toughest methane emission laws in the country,” said Hickenlooper in the spot, which runs more than two minutes.

It’s also a reflection on his two terms as Colorado governor. Hickenlooper, who once worked as a geologist for an oil company called Buckhorn Petroleum, often tried to serve as a negotiator between the state’s powerful energy industry and its vocal environmental community.

One example: his successful push in 2014 to force energy companies to clamp down on methane leaks, a landmark step at the time (Climatewire, Feb. 25, 2014).

Another was his mediation of a fight that same year between the energy sector and environmentalists who wanted to impose strict limits on hydraulic fracturing. Critics of the procedure — including now-Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D), then a congressman — wanted to put one or more initiatives on the ballot that would impose new setback requirements on drilling rigs.

In response, oil and gas companies threatened to turn the issue into a major political fight with their own pro-energy ballot initiatives, creating a potential headache for Hickenlooper ally and then-Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who was up for re-election.

After weeks of negotiations, Hickenlooper persuaded both sides to back down and withdraw their ballot initiatives. The compromise also called for the creation of a task force to examine oil and gas issues.

“What Hickenlooper was able to do was balance a number of different energy and environmental issues in a ways that ensures things got done,” said Matt Dempsey, an oil and gas consultant based in Denver.

The truce didn’t do much for the issue over the long term, however, as fracking continues to be a major source of friction in the state — so much so that environmentalists last year put a similar setback initiative on the ballot, where it failed (Energywire, Nov. 7, 2018).

And for some in the environmental community, the episode was another reason to be skeptical of a politician who, during a discussion about natural gas safety and regulation, told members of Congress in 2013 that he once took a drink of fracking fluid.

The stuff wasn’t tasty, but “I’m still alive,” Hickenlooper said.

‘Frackenlooper’

This kind of centrist profile could be Hickenlooper’s biggest obstacle to the White House — as it may not be enough to please Democratic primary voters angry at President Trump and looking for a major change.

“He’s got a legitimate general-election argument, but the question is how radicalized the Democratic Party is,” said Ian Silverii, executive director of ProgressNow Colorado, a liberal advocacy group.

RL Miller, political director of the environmental group Climate Hawks Vote, put it this way. Among climate activists, Hickenlooper is viewed so negatively that he has a nickname: “Frackenlooper.” And that yoke is likely to be a major obstacle when set against someone like Inslee.

“They’re the only two candidates in the Executive Experience, Sitting/Former Governor lane, and given how climate is critically important for Democratic primary voters I’d be very surprised to see Frackenlooper overtake Inslee in that lane,” she wrote in an email.

In that observation, Miller may find rare agreement with Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance.

“I don’t see how Gov. Hickenlooper has much attraction for the current Democrat electorate,” Sgamma said. “With a field full of candidates that think the Green New Deal is a good idea, perhaps there’s room for a candidate like Hick who has common sense and is pragmatic, but I don’t detect a lot of that in today’s electorate.”

To be sure, Hickenlooper has taken steps recently to burnish his climate profile. In 2017, he signed an executive order aligning Colorado with the Paris Agreement. And last year, he pushed the state to adapt stricter standards for tailpipe emissions (Climatewire, Nov. 19, 2018).

As for the Green New Deal, Hickenlooper has been supportive — mostly — of the broad liberal proposal to fight climate change with a massive, government-led jobs program.

Several Democratic presidential contenders have signed on as co-sponsors, including Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

“I’m going to guess that 99 percent of what’s in the Green New Deal I will be happy to embrace,” Hickenlooper told a New Hampshire audience, as was reported by Fox News. But he argued that the proposal should not be “a litmus test that you’re either with us or wrong.”

‘Longtime champion’

Inslee, for his part, told Vox this month he is “in sync” with the Green New Deal and that its ambitious goals are in line with a green philosophy he’s been preaching for years.

“I think it’s necessary and suitable to the times,” he said. “It’s a major reindustrialization of America, and we should talk about it in these terms.”

If there is a knock on Inslee from a climate angle, it’s that he’s had trouble turning his ideas into legislative or electoral victories. The cap-and-trade legislation he supported in Congress never became law, and he’s failed to get Washington state to implement a carbon tax (Climatewire, Jan. 18).

“By working collaboratively, [Hickenlooper] has been able to make it work,” said Dempsey, the oil and gas consultant. “Inslee, in the meantime, has been defeated time and again.”

Pete Maysmith, who served as executive director of Conservation Colorados before joining the League of Conservation Voters, said both candidates have advocated for the environment — though in Hickenlooper’s case it wasn’t done as quickly as it could have been.

“Governor Inslee is a longtime champion for climate action, and we’re delighted that he’s running his presidential campaign with a singular focus on combating this crisis,” he said.

“Governor Hickenlooper ultimately signed important environmental and climate-related legislation and other measures,” he added. “At times, it took him longer than it should have to move on these critical issues, but his leadership was important in making sure a growing Western state demonstrated the need to protect our public lands and tackle climate change.”