A fracking problem for Dems

Getty Images

Republicans love fracking in Colorado — and it could help them flip a critical Senate seat this fall. 

The onslaught against Democratic Sen. Mark Udall (Colo.) reached a fever pitch this week when Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) had to cancel a special legislative session meant to keep two hydraulic fracturing initiatives backed by Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) off the November ballot.

ADVERTISEMENT
Udall, who had stayed out of the fray on the two measures, was forced to take a side much to the GOP's glee. 

Now, with Colorado as one of the top natural gas producing states in the nation, the fracking controversy could be the issue that gives Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) the boost he needs in the tight-knit race of high importance in the battle for Senate control. 

Udall came out against the two measures along with Hickenlooper, also up for reelection, essentially creating a rift within the state’s Democratic party. 

The Polis-backed measures would set tighter restrictions on hydraulic fracturing operations for oil and natural gas in the state. One would extend the setback for hydraulic fracturing wells to 2,000 feet from schools, hospitals, and the like. The other would establish an "environmental bill of rights" giving local governments precedence when its laws conflict with the state's. 

But the progressive Poils, who is known for flying solo on issues and not bending a knee to the party, is unlikely to pull the measures, which Colorado environmentalists fiercely support. 

Five towns in Colorado have already banned the controversial drilling method, which pumps a pressurized mix of chemicals, water, and sand, or wastewater as many call it, into the ground to extract natural gas deposits from deep below the earth's surface. 

To hear Floyd Ciruli, a non-partisan Colorado pollster for nearly 40 years tell it, Democrats are in full-blown damage control over the fracking measures being pushed by its liberal, environmental wing. 

"Sen. Udall has to be concerned just because of the amount of negative, hostile conversation among Democrats arguing with each other," Ciruli said of the multi-million dollar campaign surrounding the two measures. 

"These guys are going into an election here that everyone thinks is one or two points, and the No. 1 characteristic of Colorado Democratic voters is that they are environmentalists," he added.

Between Udall and Gardner, the incumbent is clearly the favorite of environmental groups, netting endorsements from the League of Conservation Voters, and billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer. 

But even those credentials may not be enough for young, environmentally conscious voters -- who Democrats need to turn out on Election Day --  who are troubled by the booming hydraulic fracturing operations in the state.

The race remains tight, and for Democrats it could come down to those "10,000 environmental voters" or so who back the ballot measures to break the dead-heat between Udall and Gardner.

An NBC News/Marist poll this week put Udall up by seven points over Gardner, but a Quinnipiac survey a few days later showed the Republican in a statistical tie. 

The fear of such a split and subsequent depressed Democratic turnout was evident in statements issued by Udall, Hickenlooper and the group Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy, which is organizing the push for the two measures.

"Colorado has served as a model for the nation on finding the right balance between protecting our clean air and water, the health of our communities, and safely developing our abundant energy resources," Udall said on Wednesday after news broke that Hickenlooper had to cancel the legislative session. 

Udall added that "one-size-fits-all restrictions" would not work for Colorado, and that he would continue to work with stakeholders to find a "common ground." 

Hickenlooper shortly followed on Thursday, railing against the campaign funding the fracking initiatives, stating they would "kill jobs and damage our state's economy."

Immediately after, spokeswoman for Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy, Mara Sheldon, shot back.

"The voters will now have the opportunity to do what the legislature couldn’t and pass commonsense protections for our children and communities," she said in a statement.

Spokesman for industry-backed group, Energy in Depth, Simon Lomax, called the initiatives a "bizarre move that will fail because the oil and gas industry suppports more than 110,000 jobs in Colorado."

He added that scientists, regulators and federal officials have all concluded hydraulic fracturing is safe, making the fight in Colorado "like watching bad performance art."

And that "civil war," as Gardner likes to call it, may break in his favor come November.

The sophomore congressman has followed the party line when it comes to his energy platform, boasting an “all-of-the-above” approach. Recently, the House took up his bill to expedite natural gas exports to countries like Ukraine, which are under Russia’s energy stranglehold. Udall’s companion bill in the Senate has yet to be considered in committee, and is unlikely to reach the floor before November.

Now, Republicans say the ballot measures are the latest energy headache for Udall. 

“He waited and hesitated to take a position,” Gardner told The Hill. “These ballot initiatives are job killers … and they are creating a huge civil war between new and old Democrats.”

He argues that Udall “just doesn’t like the initiative being on the ballot at the same time he is” but that he supports restrictions on energy production.

Udall spokesman Chris Harris shot back at reports of in-fighting among Colorado's Democrats.

"Anyone who thinks that is misreading the situation," Harris said.

Harris added that Gardner's attempts to paint Udall as someone who barely came onto the scene in defense of hydraulic fracturing and natural gas production, just isn't right.

"For months before it became an issue Mark has been saying that ballot measures were not the way to address peoples’ concerns," Harris said. "Congressman Gardner is not interested in balance. Mark is where Coloradans are on this, which is the understanding need to support energy production, but also finding the right balance for clean air, and water, and the health of our communities."

In the end, Democratic strategist Steve Welchert said he doesn’t think the split among Democrats on the two initiatives will make-or-break Udall’s campaign.

“Udall was first to come out and say wasn't going to support ballot measure,” Welchert said. “Some Democrats think the measures will get more Democrats to the polls, I think it’s a wash.”

Still, whether the initiatives help or hurt turnout, Ciruli noted the measures have put Democrats in a situation that “they didn’t want, and they didn’t expect.”

More in Energy & Environment

Dem bill would ban fracking on federal land

Read more »