This story is part of a series focusing on the climate records of candidates in key Senate races in November's elections.
At a Glance:
Incumbent Cory Gardner, often called the Senate's most vulnerable Republican in 2020, is trying to ride the Trump wave, while dodging the GOP's label as anti-climate.
Progressive Democrats are lukewarm on former Gov. John Hickenlooper, but he's still favored to turn Colorado's Senate delegation from purple to blue in this election.
This summer's Pine Gulch wildfire, the largest-ever in Colorado history, could help fuel a Democratic victory to help flip the Senate majority and spark a national climate policy.
Democrat John Hickenlooper famously told a Senate committee a few years ago he'd sipped fracking wastewater—it was, "almost ritual-like," he said—to prove it's safe. Now the one-time energy geologist has become the pro-climate candidate in a battle to unseat the incumbent, Republican Sen. Cory Gardner.
Hickenlooper's success might seem surprising in a political ecosystem where more than half of adults say Congress and the president should make global warming a high priority, and 69 percent consider themselves conservationists. But the former Colorado governor, sometimes called "Frackenlooper" by progressives for supporting the energy industry, has green group support in what's been among the most hotly contested congressional races of 2020.
During his presidential run last year, Hickenlooper told The New York Times: "The next president is going to be the last person who has a chance to stop climate change when it will still matter."
Now he's talking about the climate-action potential of the next U.S. Senate.
His campaign website dedicates a page to what he calls "the defining challenge of our time."
"Our planet's health, economic well-being, and national security are all at risk," he says. "It is imperative that we address the climate challenges we face with a fierce sense of urgency — human lives and livelihoods are at stake."
The page describes a national goal of creating jobs by transitioning to a 100 percent renewable energy economy with net-zero emissions by 2050—a slightly more ambitious goal than his state's climate plan. Besides advocating a science-based approach, with more climate research and development, more electric cars and more job training for a just transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, Hickenlooper also proposes leveraging education to prepare workers for clean-energy jobs and using future trade deals to facilitate greenhouse gas reductions.
During his presidential campaign, Hickenlooper said he's no fan of the Green New Deal. But he does support rejoining the Paris climate accord, ending fossil fuel subsidies, stopping fossil fuel exports and banning new oil and gas leasing on public lands, the position held by the Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden.
"We will transition to 100 percent renewables and, as we make this transition, utilizing our natural gas resources to offset the need for dirtier forms of fuel, such as coal, will remain important," Hickenlooper told The Denver Post.
As Denver's mayor and Colorado's governor, Hickenlooper presided over the nation's first-ever methane regulations, the state's first light rail system and an electric vehicle plan. And while his administration backed the $28 billion outdoor recreation industry with its focus on protecting public lands, it also blocked community fracking bans in support of the $13.5 billion oil and gas industry that's eager to develop public lands.
Eric Sondermann, a Colorado independent political analyst, said Hickenlooper has always been a pro-oil-and-gas Democrat. He said Hickenlooper has the support of environmentally-minded voters in an increasingly blue-leaning state, because voters concerned about climate see him as the best of the available options.
"Democrats are so desperate to retake the Senate and send Cory Gardner packing that there are a lot of Democratic voters who are willing to overlook some issues they normally wouldn't," he said. Hickenlooper "is never going to be as much of an oil and gas guy as Gardner."
Embracing Conservation, Dodging the Coattails of A Populist President
Republican Cory Gardner clearly knows his constituents care about the outdoors. Eighty-one percent of Coloradans say clean air and water, wildlife and public lands are important in their voting decisions. But he's solidly aligned with the party of Trump, which has championed fossil fuel "energy dominance," removed climate considerations from national policies and rolled back dozens of environmental laws and regulations.
Though largely tip-toeing through that minefield throughout his first term, Gardner marshaled his political disadvantage as a vulnerable Republican into two of the most important conservation measures in a half century. Joined by Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, whose seat is also considered a toss-up, he pressed reluctant GOP leaders—including the president—to reauthorize the lapsed Land and Water Conservation Fund and to secure permanent funding to pay for public land improvements through the Great American Outdoors Act.
Gardner has taken relatively moderate positions on climate change, rejecting what he calls the "false choice between addressing climate change and economic growth" and "unreasonableness on both ends of the spectrum." In the Senate, he's advocated for National Renewable Energy Laboratory funding and been given "champion" status from wind and solar energy trade groups.
"I believe humans are contributing to climate change, and I believe we have work to do together to solve it," said Gardner, a fifth-generation Coloradan.
Gardner has also advocated for fossil fuels and praised the oil and gas industry for supporting over 10 million U.S. jobs. He opposed the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan to lower greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants, according to The Colorado Sun. He also calls the controversial fight to relocate the Bureau of Land Management's headquarters to Grand Junction, one of his "proudest moments."
"Instead of talking about putting our traditional energy sources out of business," Gardner says on his web page, "why don't we talk about hardening our energy infrastructure, protecting these critical assets, and continuing to responsibly produce those resources for us, the environment, and for the world?"
"What I'm doing is fighting for policies that have bipartisan support, that can receive successful buy-in from both sides of the aisle to reduce pollution to promote clean energy, to promote wind, (and) solar, to move toward a renewable energy future," he said in the Sun article. "I'm not going to do that to the detriment of jobs in my hometown or jobs in other places in Colorado. I think we can have a brighter, cleaner future without hurting the people who live next to us."
Environmental groups accuse Gardner of trying to greenwash his record. The League of Conservation Voters, an advocacy group that tracks lawmakers' pro-environment votes, gives Gardner an 11 percent lifetime rating. And green groups remind voters that Gardner has backed the Trump administration 89 percent of the time.
Gardner seemed to be stepping carefully through the environmental issue minefield in the weeks before the November election. Democrats pressed him to use his influence again to advance the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act, which protects about 400,000 acres of public lands in Colorado.
But his lack of support, along with his votes for many "anti-environment" positions by the Trump administration, have prompted groups like the Protect Our Winters (POW) Action Fund to snub Gardner. They cite his votes to confirm Scott Pruitt and former oil company lobbyist Andrew Wheeler to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as Ryan Zinke and David L. Bernhardt to be Secretary of the Interior.
"He's confirmed all of these leaders of our agencies that have spent their time dismantling climate policy and climate rules and regulations in our country for the last four years," said Lindsay Bourgoine, who oversees the POW Action Fund.
"We look at these two candidates [and] there's a very clear choice," she concluded, "and the choice is John Hickenlooper."
The Democrats also pushed for a vote on the Trump administration's nomination of the controversial William Perry Pendley to be the administration's first Bureau of Land Management director, hoping to use the vote as a cudgel against vulnerable western Republican senators.
Despite his support of the Great American Outdoors Act, Gardner seems to be aware of the precariousness of his position among environmental voters. The president sent his favorite child, Ivanka, to celebrate the historic legislation against the evergreen backdrop of the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. En route, she tweeted that she'd be joined by Gardner. He never showed.
All the political capital and money Republicans have poured into the 2020 Colorado Senate race has kept it in the "toss up" category, based on the Cook Political Report. RealClearPolitics has put Gardner's seat in the "leans Democratic" category. Gardner, like Susan Collins of Maine, is one of just two Republican senators fighting for reelection in a state Trump lost to Hillary Clinton in 2016. But Colorado's deepening drought, the no-show monsoons this summer and the historic wildfire season, are likely to prove awkward reminders to voters this fall that climate change is on the ballot, too.