Governor: We should embrace natural gas

Fracking and horizontal drilling helping to ease global warming

AURORA - Gov. John Hickenlooper sparred with environmental activists Tuesday in a rare speech about climate change.

Hickenlooper often talked about climate issues when he was mayor of Denver, but he has been quieter on the topic since he became governor. He spent 30 minutes Tuesday morning at a conference of the Colorado Climate Network, a group of local governments that studies ways to adjust to climate change.

Acknowledging that "it drives some of my friends crazy," the Democratic governor said embracing natural gas is the only realistic way to cut American emissions of greenhouse gases.

Hickenlooper also urged people to ramp up pressure on Congress to extend the wind-production tax credit. But he saved his strongest endorsement for a fuel that has stirred controversy in recent years.

The United States never signed the Kyoto treaty to cut greenhouse emissions, but the country is on its way to meeting the target anyway thanks to natural gas, Hickenlooper said.

"We are more than halfway toward compliance because we have these innovations in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing," he said.

Wind and solar power help, he said, but closing coal power plants and replacing them with natural gas is the best short-term measure.

The governor took questions at the end of his talk and debated with people in the crowd.

Jeff Neuman-Lee of Fossil Fuel Free Denver criticized Hickenlooper's stance.

"What the world needs, and what Colorado needs, is ways of moving beyond fossil fuels," Neuman-Lee said.

"Sure," Hickenlooper said. "No argument. What are you going to do in the meantime?"

When others in the audience said the public would soon be ready to fully accept renewable energy and abandon fossil fuels, Hickenlooper replied in an urgent tone, citing melting permafrost and other ills of climate change.

"We don't have any time," he said. "I'm willing to push the political reality as hard as I can, but I think it's morally reckless to not embrace something like natural gas as a short-term transition fuel."

Environmentalists have criticized Hickenlooper's embrace of natural gas, and especially hydraulic fracturing, which injects chemicals into wells to free the gas from tight rock formations.

At Hickenlooper's urging, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is rewriting its rules on water monitoring to see if chemicals are getting into the water table. Hickenlooper said spills are rare and usually are small surface spills, which he said are similar to leaking oil on a garage floor.

Stephen Saunders of the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization said he has been both frustrated and optimistic about Hickenlooper's prioritization of climate issues. Just getting the governor to the conference was a positive step, Saunders said. It was the first time that Saunders could remember that Hickenlooper as governor had given a speech focused exclusively on climate change.

"I am optimistic and confident that Governor Hickenlooper will do as good a job of leading on climate change as governor as he did as mayor," Saunders said.