Hickenlooper’s Climate Record Has Rolled With The Changes In His Political Career

Increasingly, climate change is a critical motivating issue for a segment of the Colorado electorate; recent polling finds that well over half of Coloradans think the U.S. government should do more than its doing now to address it.

In Colorado's contested race for the Senate, incumbent Republican Sen. Cory Gardner and Democratic challenger former Gov. John Hickenlooper both tout their environmental records. But only Hickenlooper highlights climate change as a major platform issue, calling it “the defining challenge of our time,” and supporting a transition to a 100 percent renewable energy economy with net-zero emissions by 2050. 

Hickenlooper’s climate record doesn’t have some convinced that he’ll make the changes they think are needed to address global warming quickly enough. Here’s the backstory.

The Claim:

In one campaign ad, Hickenlooper says that “in Washington, they’re ignoring climate change and investing in the energy of the past.” Hickenlooper’s website says that as Denver mayor and Colorado’s governor, he “brought people together to launch clean-energy projects and enact pioneering climate change legislation,” and that as a trained geologist, he’ll “bring a practical, fact-based understanding of Earth science to the senate.”

The Backstory:

Hickenlooper, who often draws on his varied professional background as he touts his political qualifications, has a master’s degree in geology and worked for Buckhorn Petroleum in Colorado in the early 1980s before he was laid off. 

His involvement in climate change began early in his political career. In 2005, two years into his first term as Denver’s mayor, he signed on to the Kyoto Protocol — the first international treaty to cut greenhouse gas emissions. As The Denver Post reported, this was at a time when the chief climate negotiator for the United States said there was insufficient evidence of global warming to require greenhouse gas producers to limit emissions. 

Hickenlooper also signed the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, becoming one of the first mayors nationwide to do so.

That same year, Hickenlooper launched the Greenprint Denver Office, which was meant to coordinate city agencies to implement sustainability initiatives and “reduce Denver’s environmental footprint.” Goals included conserving water, using renewable energy, reducing waste and promoting mass transit.

The office’s advisory council released the Denver Climate Action Plan, which included the goal of reducing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions to 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. At the same time, then-Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter released the statewide Climate Action Plan, with somewhat different mileposts: setting a goal to reduce greenhouse gases by 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.  

Then-Greenprint Denver director Michele Weingarden told Architect Magazine that the MIle High City achieved its goals three years ahead of schedule. It’s among several environmental successes Hickenlooper now points to from his time as mayor. Others include the launch of what was then the nation’s largest bike-sharing program, the expansion of the city’s green fleet of alternative fuel vehicles, voter approval of the Regional Transportation District’s transit expansion program known as FasTracks, the city’s switch over to a single-stream recycling process and the construction of solar arrays at locations like Denver International Airport and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. 

Hickenlooper’s Greenprint Denver included the Mile High Million tree initiative, with the goal of planting 1 million trees throughout the metro region by 2025 to sequester carbon, improve environmental health and lessen energy needs by providing shade. It was supported with a five-year, $1 million grant from Suncor Energy. But the money ran out and the initiative ended in 2013 with only 250,000 to 500,000 new trees planted. The Denver Post reports current Denver mayor Michael Hancock decided to focus on maintaining the city’s more than 2 million trees instead of planting more around the region.

A Mixed Record As Governor

As Hickenlooper started his run for governor in 2010, he appeared to back away from his earlier urgency around climate change. As reported by The Denver Post, Hickenlooper told mining executives attending the National Western Mining Conference & Exhibition that, “I don’t think the scientific community has decided with certainty that climate change is as catastrophic as so many people think.”

“WTF?” tweeted Beth Conover, the architect of Greenprint Denver and a policy advisor to Hickenlooper when he was mayor, in response to the story. In response to her tweet, Hickenlooper told the Post that “People are very passionate about this on both sides of the issue… Somehow I generally manage to get both sides upset.”

Later that year, he spoke at the Colorado Rural Electric Association’s annual meeting and said, “I get in trouble every time I say this, but I’m not 100 percent absolutely sure that climate change is occurring at the rate that some people fear it is and is going to be as catastrophic,” as reported by Grist

Oil and gas production boomed in Colorado during Hickenlooper’s eight years as governor, which had less to do with Hickenlooper than with the deployment of new technology. Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing opened up oil and gas deposits across the state previously thought to be tapped out or inaccessible. 

Hickenlooper’s record on oil and gas from this period is mixed, as he tried to balance environmental priorities with economic development and private property rights.

On one hand, his administration added and strengthened regulations to protect health and the environment. The state’s ground-breaking methane rules — the first of their kind in the nation -- are a prime example. His regulatory agencies also rolled out a litany of other smaller measures, often leading to grumbling among operators. 

However, Hickenlooper also stood against the environmental groups that wanted to slow or stop the boom in oil and gas development. At a time when some Front Range communities demanded more control over drilling within their borders, Hickenlooper threatened to sue any city or town that banned fracking outright. 

"We can't find examples in Colorado, or more than one or two examples, where fracking, in any sense, has caused harm or been sufficiently dangerous to the public to justify us to ban it," he said in 2015.

And while Hickenlooper did create a commission to find ways to give local governments more say over drilling projects, its work was criticized by some of its own members as falling short. That commission was the result of a compromise he engineered in 2014 to keep a fracking ban off the ballot. In 2018, he opposed a similar measure that failed. Those positions earned him the nickname “Frackenlooper” by some in the environmental movement.

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That image was only bolstered when the geologist-turned-politician told the Senate he drank hydraulic fracturing fluid to prove the substance was safe, an assertion that has continued to dog him.  

Near the end of his second term, Hickenlooper issued an executive order for Colorado to adopt low-emission vehicle standards set by California. He also oversaw the retirement of two coal-fired power plants, replaced by renewable energy and battery storage.  

After President Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement early in his term, Hickenlooper kept Colorado committed to the goals. He issued an executive order to cut the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26 percent by 2025. But he was hesitant. Earlier that year, he told Colorado Matters it “would be a big leap for most states and a big leap for Colorado...I’m not saying we couldn’t do it and I think we will be able to do it. I just want to know how we’re going to do it before I go off and say, ‘Hey, here’s what we’re doing.’”

Criticized By Both Sides In The Senate Race

As his eye turned to national politics, Hickenlooper has tried to strike a tone about climate change that is urgent, but not overly prescriptive.

He has repeatedly criticized aspects of the Green New Deal as too expensive and ambitious. He told CPR News’s Colorado Matters, “Banning things has never been the most effective way to get this country to change. And the way America historically changes in dramatic fashion is by having choices that are clearly better for their future. And I think now, as we're beginning to monetize what the costs of doing nothing are, we will begin to see real action. And again, this is not something that should be Democrats or Republicans and strictly partisan. This should be a bipartisan solution.”

During his failed presidential campaign, Hickenlooper told an audience at New England College that “I agree 100 percent that the time for incremental change around climate change and addressing climate change, is passed… we are rapidly approaching a point of no return. And that demands us to be again, 10 times more ambitious and 10 times more aggressive.”

“I’m going to guess that [between] 90 and 99 percent of what’s in the Green New Deal I will be happy to embrace,” he said.

Hickenlooper’s more moderate stance on climate policy became an ongoing issue in the Democratic Senate primary, with a national climate group stepping in to actively campaign against him on behalf of another candidate. When environmental groups held a primary forum focused on climate policy, he was the only Democratic candidate to skip it.

“We're going to also be highlighting all the reasons why Hickenlooper is so dangerous for this state,” said Boulder Sunrise Movement Coordinator Michele Weindling.

However, since he successfully made it through the Democratic primary, the attacks on Hickenlooper’s environmental record and positions have come from the right. Republican Sen. Cory Gardner has repeatedly accused Hickenlooper of supporting policies that would eliminate all oil, gas and coal jobs in the state.

In response, Hickenlooper has emphasized that the policies he supports would eventually lead to more job creation in the renewable energy sector and that he would not support mandating significant immediate changes.

“This is a transition,” he said at a debate co-sponsored by CPR. “That's going to take a significant period of time.”Hickenlooper has also gained endorsements from the Natural Resources Defence Council Action Fund, the Sierra Club, and the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund.