The cozy relationship between politicians and big business has been a fact of life in America since the days of the robber barons. Today, this affiliation is especially strong between certain governors and the oil and gas industry. And, the consequences could include drastic impacts on the health and safety of their constituents. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of Colorado’s Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Given that Colorado is the epicenter of both the gas boom and the controversy over its impacts, the governor has become a leading national figure on oil and gas. Earlier this year, Hickenlooper appeared in front of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee during a hearing and stated that he drank fracking fluid, implying that it’s safe. Shortly after, he was forced to clarify that what he drank isn’t actually used commercially, stating that: “I don’t think there’s any frack fluid right now that I’m aware of that people are using commercially that you want to drink.”
It turns out that this wasn’t the last time that the governor would go to bat for the oil-and-gas industry. In fact, Hickenlooper has mastered the rhetoric of a concerned elected official, while at the same time working to help his billion-dollar oil-and-gas industry boosters cheat the rules that protect public health and water.
While Hickenlooper has claimed he would increase fines and hold industry polluters accountable, behind closed doors he helped weaken and kill legislation aimed at doing just that.
Case in point: the governor recently announced, with great pomp and circumstance, an initiative to make Colorado the “the healthiest state,” and created a safe drinking water week. Days later, and with far less fanfare, he successfully gutted legislation to hold oil-and-gas companies accountable when they pollute Colorado communities and water.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. In January, Hickenlooper’s oil-and-gas commission put forth water testing rules criticized as weakest in the nation, which included the Anadarko-Noble loophole, a huge carve-out for two of the biggest oil-and-gas operators in Colorado.
The Anadarko-Noble loophole makes it easier for billion-dollar oil-and-gas companies to pollute water in northern Colorado, an area that’s home to some of the state’s most intense drilling and more than 25 percent of Colorado’s oil-and-gas wells. It’s also home to more than half of the most recent reported spills.
Hickenlooper’s lobbyists also worked to weaken fines for oil-and-gas companies guilty of polluting. They did this, despite the fact that Colorado already has lowest-in-the-nation fines and a well-documented problem with spills and water contamination.
In 2012, industry reported 402 spills in Colorado, 20 percent of which resulted in water contamination. Just six companies were responsible for more than 85 percent of all spills that contaminated water. Now, thanks to Hickenlooper’s efforts, these companies have even less incentive to stop polluting Colorado communities and water.
Hickenlooper has also rejected funding to increase the number of state oil-and-gas well inspectors. His Department of Natural Resources agency joined with the oil-and-gas industry to oppose additional resources to increase the number of inspectors – from 16 to 24 – for the state’s more than 52,000 wells.
The Hickenlooper administration also opposed reform efforts to increase transparency on the Colorado oil-and-gas commission. Oil-and-gas companies currently serve on the commission, which regulates their activities, posing serious concerns about conflicts of interest.
Finally, the Hickenlooper administration worked to block a public health study to see if fracking is making Coloradoans sick. Hickenlooper’s chief of public health and the environment, Dr. Chris Urbina, testified against the need for the study – which was supported by local residents and medical professionals.
Hickenlooper is, unfortunately, only one example of a state chief executive who seems to value his oil-and-gas donors over all others. New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Pennsylvania’s Gov. Tom Corbett and Utah’s Gov. Gary Herbert have all displayed similar tendencies. These elected officials need to be held accountable for their actions; they need to put the health and safety of their constituents ahead of the profits of the billion-dollar oil-and-gas industry.
Bannon is Western Lands and Energy Program Manager for the Checks and Balances Project.