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John Hickenlooper wins over critics with big role in Democrats’ climate bill

Colorado senator used to be criticized for being too cozy with oil and gas industry; now he’s being cheered by environmentalists
U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colorado, attends a news conference on Aug. 9 celebrating the U.S. Senate's passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. (Jesse Paul/The Colorado Sun)

One by one, the environmentalists walked to the microphone to sing the praises of U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper.

Breanna Gonzalez, the Colorado field coordinator for Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors, thanked Hickenlooper for his “important leadership” in advancing Democrats’ climate, health care and spending bill in the U.S. Senate. Kelly Nordini, executive director of Conservation Colorado, called Hickenlooper “instrumental.” And Chris Markuson, Western states director for the BlueGreen Alliance, called the junior senator from Colorado “integral.”

“John Hickenlooper can talk to a wooden post and get him to vote with him,” said Rosemary Rodriguez, a longtime Democratic activist and elected official, speaking at a news conference Aug. 9 at Denver’s City Park to celebrate the bill.

Two years after a Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in which Hickenlooper was criticized for being too cozy with the oil and gas industry and weak on combating climate change, he is being hailed as a savior of what’s being called the most important climate bill ever considered by Congress. Hickenlooper, the man who once boasted about drinking hydraulic fracturing fluid with Halliburton executives, made legislation possible that analysts believe will cut greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 40% by 2050.

“This is the single greatest climate rescue initiative in the history of the planet,” Hickenlooper declared. “No other country has ever done something this massive.”

Hickenlooper is credited with helping rekindle stalled negotiations with U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who had stonewalled his party’s aspirations of passing sweeping climate legislation. Hickenlooper used his private sector connections to get industry leaders to keep the pressure on Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat. He also commissioned a model from the University of Pennsylvania to alleviate Manchin’s economic fears about the measure worsening inflation.

“I did try to keep everybody positive,” Hickenlooper told CNN.

U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colorado, attends a news conference on Aug. 9 celebrating the U.S. Senate’s passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. (Jesse Paul/The Colorado Sun)

CNN also credited Hickenlooper with helping resolve a tax revenue issue that arose after a $14 billion tax increase on some wealthy hedge fund managers and private equity executives was stripped from the legislation to appease Arizona’s Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, also a Democrat. Hickenlooper proposed a 1% excise tax on companies’ stock buybacks to make up for the revenue lost in Sinema’s changes, an amendment that was adopted.

The bill was signed Tuesday by President Joe Biden’s after being passed by Democrats in the Senate and House.

“Thank God John Hickenlooper came to the United States Senate,” U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, said at the City Park news conference.

Joe Salazar, a former state representative and climate activist who has been highly critical of Hickenlooper’s environmental record as governor, isn’t ready to call the senator a savior. But he gave Hickenlooper “serious credit” for taking action that he says is “rectifying the inequities that he and his administration caused in his past.”

“A lot of public officials would not do that,” he said.

Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director at WildEarth Guardians, a group that has been one of Hickenlooper’s loudest critics, said after Hickenlooper’s work on the climate legislation he’s willing to give him a chance.

“He did stick his neck out and he’s definitely thrown his weight behind it,” Nichols said, “and we’re pleased to see that. This could be a new leaf. We’ll see.”

Still, Nichols is frustrated that the legislation made concessions around oil and gas leasing on federal land, and he’s disappointed Hickenlooper didn’t do more to fight those. The concessions, along with a promise that the Biden administration will support the finishing of a natural gas pipeline in his state, were made to get Manchin on board.

WildEarth Guardians’ frustration with Hickenlooper ran so deep that it and other groups sent a letter to then-presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton imploring the Democrat not to consider Hickenlooper for interior secretary should she win in 2016.

Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., speaks in support of U.S. Ambassador to Singapore nominee Jonathan Kaplan during a hearing to examine Kaplan’s nomination before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Oct. 20, 2021. (Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)

When Hickenlooper, a geologist who once worked for an oil and gas company, ran for Senate in 2020, he was criticized by Salazar and his Democratic primary opponent, former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, who ran campaign ads highlighting Hickenlooper’s oil and gas ties.

During his 2020 presidential run, before he switched to the Senate race, Hickenlooper wrote an opinion piece published in The Washington Post criticizing the Green New Deal. He said the proposal from some liberal Democrats “sets unachievable goals” and “take(s) an approach that limits our prospects for success.”

Hickenlooper wrote that the private sector needed to be viewed as a partner, not an enemy, in the effort to tackle climate change. He cited his work in 2014 to adopt methane emissions regulations, which became a national model.

Hickenlooper, in an interview Aug. 10 with The Colorado Sun, said his work on the congressional climate bill, which also deals with health care and taxes, was informed largely by his belief that the private sector should be consulted as the U.S. works to tackle climate change. It’s full of clean and renewable energy tax incentives for individuals and corporations.

“It’s always going to take some time,” said Hickenlooper, who has been studying climate change since 1979, when he got his master’s degree in earth and environmental science. “If you want to do it too fast, you’re going to end up with some sort of a revolution. The one thing about the legislative process is you end up with a compromise, one after another. In this case, we did better than most people thought we would given the players and the way that the cards had been dealt.”

Environmentalists like Nichols and Salazar say the bill is far from perfect. The United Nations, for instance, says that the world should aim for net zero carbon emissions by the early 2050s to limit the Earth’s temperature from rising more than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit

“The bill doesn’t go far enough,” Salazar said. “But the bill goes a hell of a lot farther than we have right now. This is a major leap forward.”

Hickenlooper agrees that the work is just beginning.

“It’s not perfect,” he said at the City Park news conference. “There’s a lot more to be done. But this bill was written and passed in the context of today.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.

What it does

The bill would invest nearly $375 billion over the decade in climate change-fighting strategies including investments in renewable energy production and tax rebates for consumers to buy new or used electric vehicles.

It’s broken down to include $60 billion for a clean energy manufacturing tax credit and $30 billion for a production tax credit for wind and solar, seen as ways to boost and support the industries that can help curb the country’s dependence on fossil fuels. The bill also gives tax credits for nuclear power and carbon capture technology that oil companies such as Exxon Mobil have invested millions of dollars to advance.

The bill would impose a new fee on excess methane emissions from oil and gas drilling while giving fossil fuel companies access to more leases on federal lands and waters.

A late addition pushed by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and other Democrats in Arizona, Nevada and Colorado would designate $4 billion to combat a mega-drought in the West, including conservation efforts in the Colorado River Basin, which nearly 40 million Americans rely on for drinking water.

For consumers, there are tax breaks as incentives to go green. One is a 10-year consumer tax credit for renewable energy investments in wind and solar. There are tax breaks for buying electric vehicles, including a $4,000 tax credit for purchase of used electric vehicles and $7,500 for new ones.

In all, Democrats believe the strategy could put the country on a path to cut greenhouse gas emissions 40% by 2030, and “would represent the single biggest climate investment in U.S. history, by far.” – The Associated Press