Most of the legal news about Colorado these days revolves around whether or not the federal government will try to use the courts to prevent the state from implementing its new marijuana law. That's certainly an important story, but arguably just as important is the impending -- and possibly precedent setting -- legal battle here over the future of oil and gas drilling after the city of Longmont voted to ban hydraulic fracturing (aka "fracking") within its boundaries.
That vote wasn't some fluke. Following Pittsburgh's lead, both Republican and Democratic residents in the city voted overwhelmingly to ban the controversial natural gas extraction process after reports from (among others) the Environmental Protection Agency, Duke University, the University of Colorado and the fossil fuel industry itself documented fracking's potential hazards. Yet, despite all of this, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) just announced that his administration will officially back any lawsuit brought by those same firms against Longmont's new law.
If such a lawsuit is successful in overturning the ballot measure, it could begin setting a precedent for the industry to use a similar legal strategy to crush such local restrictions across the country. However, this is not merely a huge legal story -- it is also a major political one. That's because the timing of Hickenlooper's announcement couldn't be more illustrative of the incredible power of the oil and gas lobby.
Recall that this week, the Denver Post discovered that roughly one in six fossil fuel spills in Colorado end up contaminating groundwater, the Associated Press reported on fracking's link to earthquakes near the Colorado-New Mexico border, and ProPublica found that officials have "given energy and mining companies permission to pollute aquifers in more than 1,500 places across the country, releasing toxic material into underground reservoirs that help supply more than half of the nation's drinking water." Those include "Western states now stricken by drought and increasingly desperate for water."
And yet, in the very same week all of that came to light, Hickenlooper made headlines publicly promising to help this very same industry crush the will of his own voters. In other words, the industry is so powerful that it can convince a state's top political leader to shill for its interests even in a week in which the news should make such proud shilling a no-no for any elected official.
But, then, for all his gauzy billing as a left-leaning moderate, Hickenlooper is essentially an oil and gas lobbyist in a Democratic Party costume. This is a man who, as a sitting governor, paid back his election campaign's oil and gas contributions by appearing as the spokesman for the oil and gas lobby in its paid political ads; by deploying his officials to sue to overturn Longmont City Council's previous zoning regulations for fracking; and by appointing one of his oil industry donors to a key regulatory position.
He is the governor who, according to the Denver Post, has presided over a "wave of gas and oil drilling ... resulting in spills at the rate of seven every five days" -- and yet also resulting in Hickenlooper administration "regulators rarely penaliz(izing) companies responsible for spills."
Hickenlooper is also the guy who has repeatedly ignored scientific evidence in asserting that groundwater contamination from fracking is "inconceivable." Oh, and on top of all that, he also insists that there's no evidence climate change is even happening.
Considering that record, it's not exactly surprising (even if it is grotesque) that this possible presidential candidate is now offering the oil and gas industry his full support for their legal assault on his voters. In a sense, he may be simply drilling for his own geyser -- not of oil or gas, but of prospective campaign contributions for his possible 2016 run for the White House. He's going to need a lot of money, after all, if he has any hope of hiding his environmental policies from Democratic primary voters. That's especially true if his legal aid in the fracking fight ends up fueling a national trend whereby the industry tramples other municipalities across America.
At that point, the name "Hickenlooper" won't be the name for an overzealous bong hit, as Bill Maher suggested -- it could be an infamous synonym for what happens when a politician helps his campaign donors run roughshod over local communities.