Hickenlooper Faces a Skeptical West Slope

During a recent campaign speech on the Western Slope, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper paused and asked for a glass of water. Even in this group of supporters, it was the wrong question to ask.

"We gave it all to Denver," a man in the crowd quipped.

Hickenlooper laughed and spun Colorado's long-waging water wars into his campaign's theme of collaboration. But it shows just how different Western Slope politics can be from the Front Range.

Expect to see a lot more of Hickenlooper on this side of the mountains in the coming months. By the time his campaign for governor is over, he said, "I will have spent far more time on the West Slope than I will have in metropolitan Denver, for instance, even though the population is one tenth its size, just because it's that corner part of the state where I need to be able to demonstrate that I can be governor for the entire state. I'm willing to spend the time and commit myself to understand the issues and really try to work out solutions."

It's also the part of the state where Hickenlooper, Denver's incredibly popular mayor, doesn't have the race locked up. On top of the issues they'll be looking at is his stance on oil and gas development. That's an issue that looks a lot different here than in the inside the Denver skyline. The Western Slope sees the jobs from energy development, and it sees the scars. Both weigh heavily on the electorate. How they balance out depends on whom you talk to.

Hickenlooper's speech was in front of a crowd of supporters in liberal Carbondale, where many showed up to the event in Lycra shorts and T-shirts, their bikes at their sides. But they also came with serious questions. Hickenlooper has baffled many with his unclear stance on oil and gas regulations. That's a key issue here in Garfield County, which leads the state in drilling permits, and in Carbondale, where many residents fear the wave of drilling could reach the beautiful Thompson Creek area west of town.

Hickenlooper has sent mixed signals. Earlier this year he said he was "coming from a very different place than Gov. Ritter" and criticized the governor for siding too much with environmentalists when he passed stricter regulations for the oil and gas industry.

In May, his campaign said he didn't want to reopen the rulemaking process, but the candidate later said he would be willing to change rules that seemed unfair. An opinion column in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel last month said he would leave any changes to the state's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which oversees the industry.

Speaking in Carbondale, he pledged that if elected governor, he would keep the current regulations in place, untouched. He said he wouldn't reopen the rulemaking process, and he said he supported tough penalties for companies that spill chemicals. He also called on energy companies to voluntarily disclose the chemicals they use in their hydraulic fracturing, or "frack" fluids, and said "they should pay huge fines" to discourage such spills.

A former oil and gas industry geologist turned Denver restaurateur and businessman, Hickenlooper insisted he had never called for an overhaul of the regulations, which put in place environmental safeguards that many in the energy industry opposed. But he said the rulemaking process was overly contentious and polarized, and he said some rules don't apply to all areas of the state, but those could changed on a case-by-case basis by the OGCC.

Garfield County Commissioner Tresi Houpt, a Democrat, said she was comfortable with Hickenlooper's stance, but uncomfortable with his take on the rulemaking process. Houpt played an active role in that process, and as an OGCC member, she still plays an active role in seeing those rules enforced.

"I think he's in a process of better understanding the issues of rural Colorado," Houpt said "I think he's come a long way in the past several months."

How much more does he have to learn? Time will tell.

"Right now," Hickenlooper said, "there's been great suspicion between the West Slope and the Front Range. The only way I'm going to be able to help solve that and really resolve some of these issues around water and economic development is if I can build a relationship with the West Slope. I don't know any other way to do that than to come out here day after day, week after week, and met with people and listen as hard as I can and say, "All right, how do we get from here where we're kind of struggling to a place where we find agreement?"

Getting the Front Range and Western Slope to agree may be the easy part, though. If he can get Western Slope residents to agree with each other, then he deserves to be more than governor. He deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.