Hickenlooper's Real Green Deal
In announcing his candidacy for president this week, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper emphasized “getting things done” by citing Colorado’s jump from 40th in job growth to the top 10, its provision of health care to 95 percent of its citizens, and making progress on gun control during his two terms.
But when it comes to climate change, which he also mentioned prominently, and which is perhaps the most intractable issue of all, can Hickenlooper truly make a difference?
His politically adroit track record of emphasizing economic and environmental goals together suggests he just might. As he notes in his video announcement, Hickenlooper “brought environmentalists and oil-and-gas companies to the table to create the toughest methane emissions laws in the country.”
The rules Hickenlooper hammered out were the model for President Obama’s regulations to cut methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. But those national rules were subsequently overturned by Trump administration. Between 2015, when the Colorado regulations took effect, and the summer of 2018, the Hickenlooper methane rule has prompted the repair of 73,000 methane leaks. Over that period, the number of leaks in the state fell by more than 52 percent.
Refreshingly, in a veiled reference to Green New Deal advocates, Hickenlooper is injecting a needed dose of realism into the climate discussion. “We need dreamers in Washington,” he said, while cautioning that dreaming isn’t enough: “I’ve proven again and again I can bring people together to produce the progressive change Washington has failed to deliver.”
Now, as the primary season and concerns about climate change heat up, Hickenlooper’s inclusive model of climate protection and economic growth together seems well-calibrated to gain the support of moderate swing voters in the Midwest, border-state South and Mountain West who will decide the 2020 election.
Yet some Green New Dealers -- who advocate politically self-defeating and practically impossible policies like the ending all fossil fuel use within a decade -- greeted Hickenlooper’s announcement with antagonism.
“I’m looking,” Sara Loflin of the League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans told reporters, “for a president and a nominee that is a little stronger on the environment.” Anne Lee Foster, one of organizers of the ballot initiative that would have crippled Colorado’s oil and gas development, asserted that Hickenlooper wouldn't have the support of many progressives.
Yet last November, Colorado voters themselves defeated a referendum requiring a 2,500-foot setback of oil and gas development from schools and other public areas. Less than six weeks later, however, a Hickenlooper-appointed regulatory board approved an increased setback from the previous standard, to 1,000 feet. This seems an important lesson in pragmatic progress.
As for popularity, Hickenlooper finished eight years as governor of a “purple state” with a 59 percent approval rating, having previously won re-election as mayor of Denver with 87 percent of the vote. And as the Denver Post reported, "Hickenlooper has said he supports the idea of the Green New Deal, but has stopped short of embracing any specific portion of the resolution in Congress."
This, too, seems wise. A few Green New Deal goals such as achieving zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 are essential to protect the climate, as major studies have consistently found, and can likely be achieved over time without immediate fossil fuels bans. The enthusiasm of advocates to address climate change is crucial to progress. But accompanying proposals, like guaranteed government jobs, are political suicide -- and will have no role in the Democratic platform aimed winning in 2020.
In any event, Hickenlooper’s environmental bona fides are strong. In Colorado, he pursued a pro-growth, low-emissions energy agenda that included shale natural gas, wind, solar, hydropower, efficiency and advanced technology in everything from electric cars to home net electricity metering. Renewable energy production boomed, growing from 1 percent in 2004 to more than 17 percent in 2016.
He issued executive orders committing the state to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent by 2025, in keeping with the U.S. pledge under the Paris climate agreement, and he has mandated strong emissions standards for vehicles and utilities to meet those goals. The surge in jobs has been large, with more than 62,000 clean energy jobs state-wide just through the beginning of 2017.
Overall, state-wide unemployment fell from nearly than 9 percent when Hickenlooper was first elected governor to about 3 percent when he left office. Wage growth also picked up toward Hickenlooper’s final years in office. A businessman who made his money founding a series of brew-pubs, but who worked when younger as an oil and gas geologist, Hickenlooper has a sense for the economic-environmental middle ground that has proved so elusive in Washington, D.C.
Perhaps most important politically, Hickenlooper has shown that the clean energy economy can grow even with a supporting a role for responsibly-developed natural gas during the transition to lower-carbon sources. Nationally, natural gas development has been the key factor in reducing overall U.S. greenhouse emissions, since gas has half the carbon dioxide emissions of the coal it replaces. Yet the full climate benefits of the move from coal to gas can be achieved only if methane emissions from natural gas are reduced, as Hickenlooper’s policies have pioneered.
In the 2016 campaign season, Donald Trump made political hay in the industrial Midwest and elsewhere by falsely claiming that he would increase the role of coal in the U.S. economy, and that climate change is a hoax. Of course, not a single new coal plant has been built since Trump took office. Nearly 30 of them closed in his first year as president alone. Coal jobs and use continue to decline as the electric utilities themselves turn toward cheaper, less-polluting renewables, nuclear energy and natural gas.
In 2016, Democrats missed an opportunity to highlight the economic as well as environmental benefits of the growing clean energy economy, including shale natural gas in key producing swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio. In 2020, they should not make the same mistake.
John Hickenlooper has already helped Colorado create a high-growth, lower-emissions economy that is transitioning to ever-cleaner energy. He is well positioned to help America do the same.