Up against a heavily Democratic Legislature, fossil fuel firms funnel cash to politicos they’ve previously ignored to win precious votes.
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Colorado’s largest oil and gas companies, which typically favor conservative legislators, gave tens of thousands of dollars to independent expenditure committees that funded advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts in 2022 for the state’s Democratic House speaker and other lawmakers positioned to consider bills that could impact how the fossil fuel industry operates.
Lobbyists registered to represent energy interests on bills being debated in the General Assembly this spring also donated thousands of dollars to the Colorado Democratic Party and gave to House Speaker Julie McCluskie and other Democratic politicians.
The petroleum industry also contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican independent expenditure committees in last year’s midterms. According to Richard Painter, chief White House ethics lawyer under former President George W. Bush and a law professor at the University of Minnesota, the strategy follows a national playbook for well-heeled oil and gas interests in which they put 80 percent of their money behind right-of-center candidates and the remaining 20 percent to progressives.
The political tension between the legislative push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and a fossil fuel industry that is a major economic driver has intensified in the last decade.
In solidly blue Colorado, the energy industry’s preferred party is in the minority. Democrats hold a majority in both the 65-member House and the 35-member Senate, as well as occupying the offices of governor, attorney general, and secretary of state. Rather than lose seats in 2022, the party gained two spots in the Senate and five in the House, bolstering a majority it’s held since 2018.
Oil and gas companies’ “strategy is to give money to key Democrats they can woo over to their side — we find that in Congress as well,” said Painter. “They don’t have to have the majority of Democrats; they just need to get enough to vote their way to block legislation.”
In Colorado, there’s much at stake. The “pro conservation trifecta,” as environmental advocates dubbed the General Assembly and governor’s office, is pushing a legislative agenda to “accelerate the clean energy transition.” Yet the Centennial State is also the nation’s sixth-biggest oil producer and eighth-largest producer of natural gas.
The political tension between the legislative push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and a fossil fuel industry that is a major economic driver has intensified in the last decade. Activists, and Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, term the detente the “oil and gas wars.” The battle ping-ponged from municipalities to the courts to the ballot box.
As hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, unlocked energy reserves miles below the surface and wells moved into cities hugging the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains, residents voted to enact moratoriums or bans on such development.
In 2016, the Colorado Supreme Court threw out measures in Fort Collins and Longmont, ruling that they were preempted by state regulations. Undeterred, advocates gathered enough signatures in 2018 to place a proposition on the ballot that would have required drilling be at least 2,500 feet away from buildings.
Energy firms spent a record $37 million to defeat the initiative, escalating pressure on legislators to enact further safeguards to buffer fast-growing Front Range suburbs from traffic, noise, and pollution that result from drilling operations.
As the spring legislative session hits its halfway point, energy lobbyists are working to persuade lawmakers that producing oil and gas in Colorado is cleaner than importing it.
In response, Polis and his Democratic colleagues enacted in 2019 a landmark law that requires the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which regulates the industry, to prioritize health, safety, and the environment.
Existing fossil fuel production is also rebounding, to 431,000 barrels per day in 2022, after a pandemic-related 20 percent decline in 2021 from an all-time high of 527,000 barrels per day in 2019, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Eighteen rigs were operating across the state in March, up from eight in 2021.
As the spring legislative session hits its halfway point, energy lobbyists are working under the Capitol’s gold dome in Denver to persuade lawmakers that producing oil and gas in Colorado is cleaner than importing it from regions with less stringent rules.
“Colorado serves as an example for other states in reducing oil and gas emissions,” the Colorado Oil & Gas Association posted on its Facebook page days before it hosted a “day at the Capitol” on March 8 for energy companies to meet with lawmakers.
The industry contends Colorado already has some of the nation’s toughest rules around disclosing chemicals in fracking fluids, limiting methane emissions, prohibiting flaring of natural gas, and requiring setbacks from homes and schools.
Democratic leaders concede that, even with an ambitious slate of climate-related bills queued up for discussion in the General Assembly, Coloradans will still need to rely on oil and gas to fuel their lifestyle for the foreseeable future.
“The reality is, oil and gas development does continue as we transition our economy,” said McCluskie, the House speaker, at a Jan. 11 press conference. ”It’s not an overnight flip of a switch transition.”
Hailing from a district on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains that overlaps with several communities represented by Republican US Rep. Lauren Boebert, McCluskie was reelected in November, besting Republican opponent David Buckley by 12 points.
Her campaign received a boost from ads funded by Better Colorado Alliance, an independent expenditure committee, or IEC. Such entities are prohibited by law from coordinating with a candidate, or a candidate’s committee.
The state’s largest energy firms, including PDC Energy, Occidental Petroleum, Chevron, and Civitas Resources, gave about $47,500 combined to Better Colorado Alliance from December 2020 to December 2022, according to a Capital & Main review of records filed with the Colorado secretary of state. The contributions represent a small fraction of the $4.6 million the committee collected in that period.
Better Colorado Alliance, registered to primarily support Democratic state House candidates, paid more than $27,000 for mailings in October in support of McCluskie, reports show. The House speaker didn’t respond to email and phone call requests for comment. Advocates touted her 100 percent lifetime environmental voting record on a “conservation scorecard” of votes on bills impacting natural resource extraction.
Democratic state Sen. Kyle Mullica cast a pivotal vote in the Senate Finance Committee on Feb. 21 to strike a key provision of a sweeping bill that is the centerpiece of Democrats’ climate agenda.
Energy companies also donated to IECs that mainly support Republicans. Hoping for a “red tide” in last year’s midterms that failed to materialize nationally and in Colorado, the Senate Majority Fund collected more than $477,500 from top fossil fuel producers including Bayswater Exploration & Production, Chevron, PDC Energy, Occidental Petroleum, and Great Western Oil & Gas, records show. The committee raised about $8 million from December 2020 to December 2022.
None of these companies responded to phone and email requests for comment.
On the state Senate side, energy firms including Occidental Petroleum, Chevron, and Civitas Resources gave $32,500 to All Together Colorado, an IEC that supports mostly Democratic candidates, from December 2020 to December 2022, according to financial summaries. The committee collected $11 million in total during that period.
The former two-term state House representative and emergency room nurse cast a pivotal vote in the Senate Finance Committee on Feb. 21 to strike a key provision of a sweeping bill that is the centerpiece of Democrats’ climate agenda.
The first-of-its-kind measure would have required Colorado’s pension system to factor the state’s greenhouse gas emission reduction goals into its investment decisions. Hundreds of public employees who contributed to the system backed the measure, saying they didn’t want their retirement money invested in fossil fuel companies.
The section in SB 23-016 mandated that the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, or PERA, analyze both environmental and financial risk before it casts votes at the annual shareholder meetings of companies in which the pension fund is invested.
The system’s executive director opposed the measure, saying PERA’s primary objective is to make money for beneficiaries, not drive a policy outcome. In the Senate Finance Committee hearing, Mullica agreed and joined fellow Democratic Sen. Chris Kolker and the body’s three Republican members to approve an amendment striking the provision. The greenhouse gas bill’s sponsor, Democratic Sen. Chris Hansen, voted against the amendment along with Democratic Sen. Kevin Priola.
“I am in agreement with you, this should be something that is not legislated,” Mullica said.
Hansen’s bill, to be heard next in the Senate Appropriations Committee, would eliminate all carbon emissions by 2050, offer tax credits on clean lawn equipment, require insurance companies to file a survey with the state that denotes their assessment and management of climate-related risks, and put in statute the first step to incentivize carbon capture projects.
Mullica, who was a House co-sponsor of the landmark legislation that changed the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s mission, didn’t respond to phone and email requests for comment. Hansen, however, pushed back against the assertion that oil and gas campaign contributions that benefited Mullica influenced his vote on the amendment.
“I wouldn’t read too much into that — they gave Mullica very little,” he said. “Oil and gas companies spent millions against our caucus.”
Hansen added that he wouldn’t rule out the PERA provision returning to a House committee.
“I think it’s a discussion that will continue,” he said. “It’s possible a version of it could come back.”