Hickenlooper Hedges On Governors’ Climate Alliance; Seeks Funds For Energy Office

Listen Now
Photo: Gov. John Hickenlooper March 2017 3 | Wide shot
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is interviewed by Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner in the state Capitol on Tuesday, March 21, 2017.

Colorado's governor was one of several to say pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord was a "serious mistake." The statement from John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, added that "Colorado's commitment to clean air and clean energy will continue."

But in an interview with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner, the governor said he is not ready to formally join a "Climate Alliance" of governors from at least a dozen states. The pledge from the other governors is to meet the goals set in Paris, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent from 2005 levels.

"My expectation is we will be able to get to those goals and to be able to join that alliance. And perhaps even go beyond," Hickenlooper said. "But we want to do it in concert with our General Assembly and with more specifics than maybe some of those other governors have provided."

Calling the goals set in Paris "ambitious," Hickenlooper added that they 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.'"

The U.S. withdrawal from the Paris agreement comes at a time when Colorado's Energy Office is set to lose its funding. The office promotes energy development in the state, and among other things, pays for community solar projects and energy efficiency grants.

Lawmakers disagreed on how to focus the office in the future — toward more renewable sources, or for more oil and gas and even nuclear power.

In response, Gov. Hickenlooper's office requested emergency funding for the Energy Office to continue operating for a year. The new request was submitted Tuesday to the legislature's Joint Budget Committee. Hickenlooper hopes that with more time, lawmakers can agree on what the Energy Office should do in the future.

Interview Highlights With Gov. John Hickenlooper

On His Flowline Review Order Following The Oil And Gas Linked Home Explosion In Firestone:

"Our decision to examine every flowline, and to go above and beyond the perceived risk that I may've had that it was a once-in-a-million 'freak,' we went beyond that... We ordered the most rigorous inspection of flowlines in the history of the United States, is what I've been led to understand, and with an amazing sense of urgency that some in the oil and gas industry felt was unreasonable and unwarranted. But most everyone went through and did it."

On What Colorado Can And Should Do If Anthem Pulls Out Of The Health Insurance Exchange, Leaving 14 West Slope Counties Without Coverage:

"I do believe that we should hold ourselves to a level where every part of the state has some level of coverage... One backup possibility would be to try and find a nonprofit provider that would come in with some incentives from the government. You know, have Kaiser Permanente expand statewide so they become kind of a blanket coverage service. Would that take some incentives? How much incentives? I don't know."

On Whether He'd Consider Following New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo In Denying Medicaid Contracts To Insurers Who Withdraw From The State's Exchange:

"We have certainly talked about that... as a way to try to provide motivation that more insurers cover all parts of the state, or at least a number of parts of the state... There are a lot of complications. Are you going to ask every insurer that does Medicaid to cover all parts of the state?"

On What He Learned About The Trump Admin's View Of Western Land Issues While Trying To Persuade Interior Sec. Zinke To Keep Greater Sage Grouse Plans:

"[Sec. Zinke] is from the West, and he is, I think, open and receptive to hearing what we say. I don't think we've got quite the give-and-take. Western governors didn't see a draft of Zinke's judgment before he made it, whereas with [President] Obama, we would see drafts of almost everything, and there really was a collaborative effort going on. But I think we'll get there with Zinke."

Editor's Note: Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke has announced he'll review the plans to manage the greater sage grouse.

Read The Transcript

Ryan Warner: This is Colorado Matters from CPR News. I’m Ryan Warner. Colorado’s governor, Democrat John Hickenlooper, is one of several governors who say pulling out of the Paris climate accord is a mistake. He adds that Colorado’s commitment to clean air and clean energy will continue. In our regular conversation recorded Wednesday at the State Capitol, I asked him what that means.

Gov. John Hickenlooper: Here’s the goal. How can we get rid of more carbon emissions – in other words, use less coal in the generation of electricity – but at the same time, reduce the monthly costs that people pay for their electricity? And that’s the magic; if we can figure out a way to do that and have cleaner air – and so less particulates, less sulfur dioxide, less ozone, less methane, all the pollutants, all the carbon emissions – and at the same time, find a way to use the cost efficiencies of wind or another renewable, then we want to be moving forward on it, and I think we can do that. I think there’s a calculus that we can find that will allow us to, at the very least, hold the cost flat to consumers because that really drives the discussion if we can say, “Hey, if we close a couple coal plants, we’re also going to have lower prices for our consumers.”

RW: So Colorado is the first state in the country where voters passed a renewable energy mandate. That was back in 2004. It was later increased by the legislature to make utilities get 30 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020. That date’s approaching and so I wonder, do you want Colorado to set another such goal for 2030 or beyond? In other words, do you want to codify what I hear you’re saying might -

JH: Sure, but I don’t want to codify something that – unless we know what we can do and what the costs will be. In other words, we’ve got to be able to demonstrate that there are no cost increases. If we were going to try and codify something, we would do it in consultation with Senate President Grantham, with Speaker of the House Duran. That would be a broader process.

RW: There’s one candidate for governor on the Democratic side, for instance, who’s pushing for the state reaching 50 percent by a date, I think, uncertain at this point. Is that something you’d like to see, though?

JH: Oh sure, if we could do it within the cost parameters that I’m talking about.

RW: Keeping rates even?

JH: Yeah. I think that the goal here – to proclaim goals is useful and I don’t diminish – I mean, everyone should have aspirational goals. We’re trying to go a little further in detail and actually say, “All right, we want to get to this level and here’s how it’s going to happen, step by step.”

RW: What are some other areas where the state has influence and authority?

JH: You could look at issues around how government operates its buildings.

RW: As a tenant?

JH: As tenants or -

RW: The state of Colorado?

JH: Yeah, exactly, the state of Colorado also owning a lot of buildings and in charge of those. Are we at best practices in terms of the levels of insulation, how we buffer the air circulation? Are we green? Air conditioning becomes a huge issue.

RW: So are you ordering some sort of review in that regard?

JH: No, we’ve been reviewing already.

RW: At least a dozen governors, including a few Republicans, have banded together in what they’re calling the Climate Alliance. They say they’ll stick to the goals set in Paris to cut emissions by 26 percent, 28 percent from 2005 levels. Are you planning to join that Alliance?

JH: Well we’ll see where we come down, but we’re certainly looking in detail at what those goals are and we’re trying to go and make sure that we have an – a pathway by which we can get to them, and certainly, my expectations, we will be able to get to those goals and to be able to join that alliance and perhaps even go beyond that. But we want to do it in consultation with our General Assembly, we want to do it with more specifics than maybe some of those other governors have provided.

RW: So it sounds like a condition for you joining that Climate Alliance is getting very specific on how the state would reach those Paris goals itself.

JH: Yeah, that’s a pretty ambitious goal that they’ve set out and is a – 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.”

RW: But it sounds like you’re leaning strongly towards it?

JH: I think we can get there, yeah. I mean again, if we can have cleaner air at no additional cost to our rate payers, at no additional cost to our citizens, it’s government malpractice not to do that, in my opinion, right. Ten years ago, twenty years ago, when you really went after cleaning your air up, you had to add stacks onto coal plants, you had to put in huge capital investments to try and get your air cleaner. I think now with the – how inexpensive the combination of wind and natural gas is, right – so that you can put these two together and cycle on and off. When the wind blows, you’re using wind; when the wind stops blowing, you cycle on natural gas. I believe we can get pretty close to there with no additional cost to our consumers.

RW: This comes at an interesting time for Colorado because the state’s office to promote all kinds of energy development just lost about three million dollars. That money would help pay for -

JH: It wasn’t just three million dollars; they lost their entire budget.

RW: Yeah.

JH: So I mean, yeah, that was an interesting time.

RW: This is the Colorado Energy Office and this money helped pay for community solar projects, energy efficiency grants, many other things, and lawmakers disagreed on how to focus the office in the future towards more renewables or for more oil and gas and even nuclear power. So how will that loss affect all the efforts you’ve talked about so far, saying the state becoming more of an energy leader with the U.S. withdrawal from Paris?

JH: First and foremost, Colorado needs an energy office. Every state west of the Mississippi has an energy office; almost every state in the country has an energy office. So we’re at a handicap relative to just operating efficiently without that office.

RW: So practically, what does that mean for someone in the state.

JH: So practically, we’re going to prioritize places where the energy office has the greatest effect. One of the big criticisms was they didn’t do enough to support the oil and gas industry or didn’t do enough to support the coal industry. I think there’s a solution there, if we could get some more time and we’re going to petition the Joint Budget Committee to just provide barebones funding so they can get them through a year and use that year to really figure out, “What does an energy office look like that both sides can agree on?” It’s not going to be perfect for either side, but let’s get to that point where we can say, “Here’s what an energy office should do,” and somebody’s making sure that low-income households get better weatherization so that they don’t spend – have as high utility bills. These are people that an extra twenty bucks a month or even ten bucks a month is a big deal; it changes some of the parameters of their quality of life.

RW: And that’s not really an oil and gas or a solar or -

JH: Yeah, but one of the things they do also is help put in alternative fuel filling stations, right. We need to make sure there are enough stations so that more people can use alternative fuels – like compressed natural gas – for their pickup trucks, for their station wagon. That helps the oil and gas industry. I mean, all these things -

RW: So you’re going to try to buy some time by making this request of the Joint Budget Committee, not during session, obviously, but here in the intersession?

JH: Yeah. They – there are procedures by which you can request that kind of funding just to kind of get you through and then get both sides sitting down. I talked to Senator Ray Scott, who’s a chairman of the Energy Committee, the senator from Mesa County and he was very supportive of that and said he would talk to President Grantham. We’ll see. I mean that’s the kind of thing. Let’s just get a little breathing room and then have a compromise that gets us – or have – find the compromise that gets us into a new energy office.

RW: Not unrelated to this discussion about where Colorado gets its energy is that April home explosion in Northern Colorado after gas leaks from a nearby flow line. Two people died, a third was severely injured. When we talked about this in May, you said it was a freak accident, but we heard from a CU School of Public Health researcher that there were at least 116 fires and explosions at oil and gas operations in the state between 2006 and 2015. Their severity isn’t clear, I’ll say, but a home under construction in Trinidad blew up in 2005. So before the framework of that study, a double-wide in La Plata County exploded. Both of those linked to methane.

JH: But -

RW: Does that change how you’re framing this?

JH: So it was a house under construction somewhere out in the area that somehow was close to a -

RW: Yes.

JH: OK, so -

RW: And that’s according to Inside Energy.

JH: Yeah. So I haven’t seen any of this study yet. We’re certainly going to look at it. I was unaware of any fatalities that had happened in a home explosion like this. Did somebody die in the trailer home?

RW: They did not.

JH: So – but your point is that someone could have been living there. Fair enough; I – again, I only know what people show me or what I’m able to read. Our decision to examine every flow line and to go above and beyond the perceived risks that I may have had that it was a once in a million freak, we went beyond that, and that – basically, what you’re telling me, “It’s a good thing we did that.”

RW: Don’t put words in my mouth, but you did order a review of flow lines that are within a thousand feet of buildings.

JH: We ordered the most rigorous inspection of flow lines in the history of the United States is what I’ve been led to understand and with an amazing sense of urgency that some of the oil and gas industry felt was unreasonable and unwarranted, but most everyone went through and did it.

RW: Yeah, it looks like your regulators say most operators have complied. There are some smaller ones who have not, but what is the next step in that and what does it mean for those who haven’t complied?

JH: Well the people who haven’t complied, we have to find out whether it’s just a function of resources or are they trying to hide something or are they just trying to thumb their nose at public safety, which I don’t think is acceptable. An industry like the oil and gas industry – and I will tell you that most of the operators – and I know many, many operators – take their responsibility to the community very seriously, and something like this happens – that’s why – I mean no one, to my face, came up to me and said, “Jeez, can you give us three months instead of one month to get – inspect these flow lines?”

RW: Let’s move to healthcare now. Some Coloradans could be in a position soon where they have no option on the state’s health insurance exchange. Insurers have until midmonth to say whether they’ll offer plans on the exchange next year and about 37,000 people on the West Slope rely on one carrier, Anthem, which has yet to say what it will do. Your insurance commissioner told us she’s keeping her fingers crossed that insurers stay in the marketplace. What, if anything, could the state do if there are just bare spots?

JH: Well the – at a certain point, I think the state then has to look at, “How do you cover those bare spots? How many people are involved?” We know that we have parts of the state that have insufficient medical infrastructure. We’re aware of that and I’m sympathetic, right. They’re – you can’t ask a business to go into a geographical place and know that they’re going to lose money. So if that is the case, then as a state, we have to assess, “Why is it costing more in those places? Why are the doctors more expensive? Does the state have to subsidize some doctors?” I do believe that we should hold ourselves to a level where every part of the state has some level of coverage.

RW: Does the state have some muscle when it comes to those prices that may be driving insurers out of the market? What are you saying the state might do there?

JH: Well I’m saying those prices are generally a reflection of what the costs are being charged to the insurance companies and for generations, we’ve always charged more money in rural areas. No one really ever knew about it before; we never were comparing the prices between rural and urban before, and then after Obamacare, pretty much everything got compared. I think one backup possibility would be to try and find a nonprofit provider that would come in with some incentives from the government, have Kaiser Permanente expand statewide so they become kind of a blanket coverage service. Would that take some incentives? How much incentives? I don't know, but we do take very seriously that we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that each part of the state has an insurance carrier and some level of coverage.

RW: Are discussions underway with Kaiser for that?

JH: No, I don’t think so. I mean I think right now, we’re trying to make sure that Anthem – we’re doing everything we can to assure Anthem that we will help study the problem with them and – again with what – we have limited resources in terms of help – helping an insurance company be successful.

RW: This is an idea that could get very different reactions across Colorado, but one listener in Denver pointed us to what Governor Andrew Cuomo is doing in New York. He says companies that withdraw from the exchange won’t be able to participate in Medicaid, which would cut down on the number of their customers. Basically, he wants to push insurers to stay in the market that way. Would you consider some kind of preemptive action like that, more stick, I guess?

JH: Well, we have – we’ve certainly talked about that as -

RW: You have?

JH: Yes, absolutely, as a way to try to provide motivation that more insurers cover all parts of the state or at least a number of parts of the state.

RW: And why haven’t you decided to go down that avenue?

JH: Well because there are a lot of complications, there are pros and cons. Are you going to ask every insurer that does Medicaid to cover all parts of the state? The number of people on Medicaid that we have is a fraction compared to a state like New York. So for New York, that’s a much more compelling argument.

RW: I want to ask you about your veto pen. You have until Friday to veto bills from this session that just ended and one that’s getting a lot of attention is about law enforcement’s ability to seize and keep or sell cash, cars or houses that they think might have been involved in a crime. Colorado has fairly strict laws aimed at keeping seizures in check, but there’s concern that law enforcement agencies are using a loophole by working with the feds, which have looser rules around what’s called civil asset forfeiture. So lawmakers passed a bill that tries to close that loophole. They wanted a lot more information about what assets are being seized and what local law enforcement does with the profits. This bill would put that information online for the public, but many law enforcement agencies and the Colorado Municipal League say this would hurt their ability to fight crime in Colorado because they’d lose hundreds of thousands of dollars that they make from these seizures. Have you decided what you’ll do?

JH: No, we’ve – all week, we’ve been having both the people that are strong advocates for the bill, 1313. It’s an aptly, unluckily named bill, 1313. There are compelling arguments on both sides and I can’t – everyone I know has read some article, mostly in national press, about somebody who got pulled over and they had – they’re going to go buy a, let’s say, 1967 Chevy Convertible – that’s a vehicle that I have – and they had $16,000 in cash to go buy the car, and all of a sudden, they get pulled over, and there’s some marijuana in the car or whatever. These are these kind of stories you’ve read about or heard about. We haven’t been able to find any of those stories in Colorado. So so far – and I’m sure there’s probably one or two, but we haven’t found specific instances of someone’s private property being taken from them because of these allegedly looser federal laws. That being said, a huge part of our American system is ruled by law and people’s trust and faith that that law is just and fair. So -

RW: So you remain undecided at this moment?

JH: Right. I support the – absolutely, the transparency and I support trying to figure out how to make sure that this doesn’t happen to people, but even if – this law, as I read it – even if I sign this law, it became law, all it means is that the state would not participate in any way with the feds in these kinds of investigations and therefore, the state – which normally gets 80 percent of that kind of forfeiture – would not get anything, and so the feds would keep it all. I’m not sure that’s a solution we want.

RW: There’s a siren passing by us here at the capitol. Any other bills that you are considering a veto with?

JH: Well if I was going to tell you, that would really take away a lot of the surprise and drama, but no, I don’t -

RW: Anything that’s giving you pause?

JH: I don’t think there are. I think that we’re pretty much down to – I’m trying to remember if there might be one on the back part of my desk. No, I think this is what – we’ve come down to this one that we’re really trying to figure out.

RW: Governor, thank you.

JH: Always a pleasure.

RW: Colorado’s Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper is speaking with me at the State Capitol Wednesday afternoon. A few hours later, the Trump Administration announced it would review a plan the governor worked on for several years to protect a bird whose habitat in Colorado and other parts of the West is highly sought after land. The deal, struck in 2015, avoided putting the greater sage-grouse on the endangered species list. Now the president’s Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, says he wants to make sure the conservation plan doesn’t hinder energy production. Before Zinke’s announcement, I asked Governor Hickenlooper what he’s learned about working with this new administration and with Zinke on western land issues since they’ll have many more opportunities on things like oil and gas leasing, grazing permits, and the management of national monuments. Here’s that exchange.

JH: Almost all of those issues are fully in play right now. We had a long conversation with Secretary Zinke two days ago. We covered several of these issues – monuments, energy, the sage-grouse – and he is from the West, and he is, I think, open and receptive to hearing what we say. I don’t think we’ve got quite the give and take. In other words, we’re not –Western governors didn’t see a draft of Zinke’s judgment before he made it, whereas with Obama, we would see drafts of almost everything and there really was a collaborative effort going on, but I think we’ll get there with Zinke. I think he’s just new to the job and he’s trying to move quickly. Everything he said to me, I really feel that he has a good Western perspective on how these lands should be managed. I don’t think he’s going to try and sell off lands or encourage any privatization of national lands or lowering the protections on lands. He’s worried about some – in the past, some processes and procedures. So I’m – at this point, though, willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and we’ll see how this – talk to me in six months.