Colorado’s Democratic Party Kingmaker Is a Fracking Lawyer. What Could Go Wrong?

A closer look at Ken Salazar’s record of involvement in Colorado races sheds light on the debate over party influence in primaries.

Former Senator and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, D-Colo., greets members of the audience during a rally for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at the Colorado State Fairgrounds in Pueblo, Colo., Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Former Senator and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, D-Colo., greets members of the audience during a rally for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at the Colorado State Fairgrounds in Pueblo, Colo., on Oct. 12, 2016. Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP

Ken Salazar is one of the most understated and unassuming political figures west of the Mississippi. He’s also one of the most powerful.

When he was chosen to head Hillary Clinton’s ill-fated transition team in August 2016, the Colorado Independent observed that Salazar was “about as entrenched in the Colorado Democratic establishment as one can be — a former attorney general and U.S. Senator … whom President Barack Obama appointed as secretary of the Department of Interior.” When he was considering a gubernatorial run in March 2017, the Denver Post described him as having “a fortune’s worth of contacts in Democratic politics.”

With attention now focused on the party establishment’s role in tilting the outcome of competitive primaries this cycle, debate has centered on what the party’s ultimate motivation may be. Is it looking out for the interests of Democratic voters? Supporting the most electable candidate? Or is something else is at play — perhaps a mix of ideological and commercial interests operating under the veil of political pragmatism?

A closer look at former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar’s record of involvement in Colorado is instructive.

One of the most heated issues in the Colorado gubernatorial race is the future of hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking. Fracking is a process by which natural gas or oil is extracted from deep under the Earth’s crust, cracking through layers of rock by injecting it with a water and chemical solution or sand. Fracking is highly controversial due to the risks associated with it, which include groundwater contamination and seismic activity.

Environmentalists want a full ban on the practice, but at minimum, they want to empower local communities to shut fracking down themselves. The industry opposes both — fully aware that many of the state’s progressive enclaves would come down hard against fracking if empowered to govern the practice.

At a campaign stop at Colorado College in November 2017, former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, a leading candidate in the race for governor, told students that while she did not agree with a statewide fracking ban, she did support giving cities and localities greater regulatory control over the controversial practice.

“I believe there are places in our state that are just too special to drill,” she said.

In the months leading up to Kennedy’s college appearance, the debate surrounding the issue had become increasingly fraught, thanks to a series of deadly explosions between April and May 2017 that drew national attention and galvanized local opposition. The explosions, which left three dead and three injured, were caused by poorly maintained wells owned by Anadarko Petroleum Corporation.

The first blast occurred in Firestone, Colorado, after two men working in the basement of their home ignited gas which, unbeknownst to them, had been leaking into the house from a nearby abandoned well via an unsealed flow line. The news sparked investigations and fierce backlash against the company, prompting a shareholder lawsuit and the voluntary shutdown of 3,000 wells.

Although Kennedy’s position wouldn’t satisfy those calling for an all-out ban, empowering localities to take action put her on the more progressive end of the conversation. But in a surprise announcement at an April 11 candidates’ forum, she told the audience that she did not support allowing localities to ban fracking outright, nor did she favor mandatory state “setbacks” requiring wells to be a certain distance away from homes and businesses.

“I don’t think we should ban the industry in this state; I don’t support shutting it down,” Kennedy explained. “I do believe that we need a regulatory environment that protects public health, safety, and welfare first, but allows for the development of the resources.”

A few weeks later, Kennedy’s explicit rejection of an all-out ban would take on a different tenor when, on May 1, she earned the coveted endorsement of Salazar.

Salazar, it turns out, is not a disinterested observer when it comes to the politics of fracking. Emails published by International Business Times and MapLight revealed that Salazar was hired as a lawyer and fixer for Anadarko after the Firestone explosion. At WilmerHale, where he remains a partner, Salazar’s focus areas are broadcast as “energy, environment, natural resources.”

Salazar has a history of supporting fossil fuel interests going back to his Senate vote for George W. Bush’s infamous 2005 energy bill, which exempts fracking from the Underground Injection Control provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act. As interior secretary, Salazar opened the Arctic for drilling and helped to implement a plan to move wild horses out of Colorado to free up land for oil and gas extraction. Upon returning to the private sector, he vocally advocated for the Keystone XL pipeline and against restrictions on fracking.

He’s been a particularly good friend to Anadarko. As a report by the International Business Times and MapLight noted, in 2010, “Salazar’s department waived environmental rules for an Anadarko offshore drilling project after the Deepwater Horizon spill even though Anadarko partially owned the well involved in that disaster.” In 2012, it approved a plan to allow the company to “develop as many as 3,600 new gas wells in eastern Utah.” This deal was celebrated as a “victory for the economy, U.S. government, and environmental groups,” the report explains, adding that “both the Bureau of Land Management and the Utah Department of Environmental Air Quality have raised concerns about air pollution from wells in the region.” Salazar is even quoted multiple times in Anadarko’s promotional materials.

Oil and gas extraction was Colorado’s largest industry in July 2017, but fracking has long been controversial in the state — particularly among Democrats. Gov. John Hickenlooper, for example, has faced frequent criticism from the left for his fossil fuel ties, and in the 2016 Colorado primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a vocal supporter of a federal fracking ban, scored a 20-point victory over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who refused to commit to such a policy. Sanders’s support of the ban was a significant advantage in the primary.

Kennedy’s opponent in the race for governor, Rep. Jared Polis, may similarly benefit from his anti-fracking stance. A wealthy tech entrepreneur, Polis’s financial independence from the oil and gas industry makes him unusual in Colorado. As the Denver Post reported when Polis jumped into the race:

The fight Polis probably is best known for … is his 2014 battle against hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — a process in which energy companies pump water, sand and chemicals into the ground to extract oil and gas. That year, Polis led an effort to put two initiatives on the ballot that would have imposed new restrictions on fracking, including a larger buffer between homes and rigs.

The campaign had support of many environmentalists, but it terrified a number of establishment Democrats — in large part because it was seen as potentially damaging to the re-election campaigns of Hickenlooper and then-U.S. Sen. Mark Udall. The worry was that oil and gas companies would spend big to defeat Polis’ fracking measures and — as a result — more conservative voters would turn out and drag down the Democratic incumbents.

A spokesperson for Kennedy’s campaign, Deputy Campaign Manager Serena Woods, denied that Salazar’s endorsement has had an effect on Kennedy’s position, telling The Intercept that “Cary has always supported giving local communities the ability to regulate the industry as they do any other industrial operation.”

Woods went on to confirm that despite the central role that oil and gas play in the Colorado economy, the two have “never spoken about issues related to the oil and gas industry,” in the context of Salazar’s endorsement or otherwise. 

Salazar’s intervention in the Colorado gubernatorial race is being repeated in Democratic congressional primaries and local races around the state. Again and again, the party kingmaker is siding with candidates who are friendly to the oil and gas industry.

At the federal level, he’s gotten behind several congressional candidates in primaries against strident fracking opponents. For example, in the congressional race for Colorado’s 2nd District, Salazar is backing Hickenlooper administration alum Joe Neguse against progressive Mark Williams, a 54-year-old Air Force veteran who vocally opposes fracking. Neguse, who secured Salazar’s endorsement when he ran for secretary of state, has also received major support from Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, a law firm which boasts that its lawyers have scored several victories against localities trying to control fracking. Although his campaign website calls for closing the “Halliburton Loophole,” Williams questioned his opponent’s commitment on the issue. “That’s as far as he goes,” he told The Intercept.

Williams describes himself as “100 percent for banning fracking,” adding that he also supports a proposed 2,500-foot statewide setback initiative for oil and gas facilities — which his opponent has not weighed in on. “If the bulldozers come across the county line, and they come into the district,” Williams said, “I will be there shoulder to shoulder with the protesters.”

Salazar has also backed Jason Crow in the 6th District, running against progressive Levi Tillemann, who has called for a ban on fracking and an end to oil and gas subsidies. Crow experienced a spurt of political celebrity as the candidate that Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer was advocating for in secretly recorded audio published by The Intercept.

Crow is an attorney with Holland & Hart LLP, which has represented a number of oil and gas clients, including Anadarko, and has a record of success in defeating environmental groups seeking to challenge the fossil fuel industry. On his campaign website, Crow calls for “consistent safety regulations” on oil and gas companies, closing the “Halliburton Loophole,” and disclosure requirements for the chemicals used in fracking. Crow could not be reached for comment, but his public statements on fracking are markedly more vague and less hostile to oil and gas interests than his opponent’s.  

At the state level, Salazar’s pattern is fairly consistent. The former secretary-turned-gasman is supporting Phil Weiser, a former chair of the Colorado Democratic Party, over his own distant cousin, state Rep. Joe Salazar, in the contest for Colorado attorney general. Weiser recently called the 2,500-foot setback proposal “counterproductive” at a Young Democrats forum, arguing that it could have “unintended consequences.”

“Right now, there are a lot of existing oil wells, and a number of companies who have them have suggested, ‘Why don’t we reduce some of these existing oil wells, drill safer, quieter … less,’” he told the audience, relying on industry spin that a setback would do more harm than good. “But to do that, they would have to put in some new wells to retire the old ones. This setback requirement would prevent that from happening.”

Where Weiser has made close alliances with members of the fossil fuel industry, his cousin has made enemies, helping to kill a 2014 Democratic-sponsored bill that would have granted eminent domain to oil pipeline companies.

“I love him, but I wouldn’t accept his endorsement in 100 years,” Joe Salazar told The Intercept about his cousin. “It carries the taint of the oil and gas industry. People are watching and have been paying attention to where the money is coming from; people know what’s happening out there. They’re waking up because they can see fracking outside their windows.”

Phil Weiser’s Colorado Campaign Manager, Colin Hornsby, responded to a request for comment with a statement affirming Weiser’s commitment “to protecting Coloradans from unsafe oil and gas development,” including by establishing “a new unit in the Attorney General’s office to support and counsel local governments as they work to protect their citizens from the potential of unsafe oil and gas development.”

On May 10, 2017, Ken Salazar donated to Robert Rodriguez, a state Senate hopeful running in a primary in District 32 to replace Democratic incumbent Irene Aguilar. The day before the donation, Aguilar voted against a Republican-sponsored spending bill that defunded several renewable energy programs and placed bureaucratic roadblocks in the way of environmental regulation. This April, Aguilar co-sponsored legislation requiring mandatory setbacks near schools for oil and gas facilities.

Although Salazar has not spent much in the 2018 cycle, he doesn’t need to. His endorsement “opens doors to big money,” explained Joe Salazar.

Ken Salazar has lined up behind Michael Dougherty, Hickenlooper’s pick for Boulder County district attorney, even though the deputy district attorney, Mike Foote, is also in the race. Foote, however, is a major fracking opponent. Seen as the environmentalist in the race, Foote, who also serves in the state House, has a long history of fighting oil and gas in the legislature — introducing bills requiring mandatory setbacks for wells, and mandating that fossil fuel companies make disclosures to local communities that would be affected by future projects. Foote also introduced legislation to give localities greater control over their lands — potentially shutting out fossil fuel exploration. In a statement provided to The Intercept, Michael Dougherty denied “any outside industry or individual” influence, and said he is “strongly opposed to fracking.”

Sexual harassment allegations from 2017 didn’t keep Salazar from donating $200 to Democratic state Rep. Paul Rosenthal of Colorado’s 9th House District, who, as it turns out, had been the deciding vote to kill a measure to give localities more control over fracking. Rosenthal failed to meet the threshold to get onto the ballot this time around. Rosenthal strongly denies the allegations.

In an email, Rosenthal told The Intercept that “[n]o special interest, no contributor, no industry, no individual has controlled any vote” he’d cast during his six years in office, and that he had, on several occasions, opposed oil and gas.

“I have made the best decision possible on all bills given the information I had at the time,” he wrote, noting his 100 percent rating from Conservation Colorado in the 2017 session and his 96 percent overall career rating. “Over my six years, I’ve voted YES on a dozen bills, almost all of which failed in the Senate, to enact tighter restrictions or regulations or monitoring on the oil and gas industry.  A few passed into law while the Democrats controlled the legislature.”

As for his vote against local control, Rosenthal argued that the bill would not have passed the state Senate, was opposed by some local governments, as well as the governor’s office, and that the state Supreme Court was considering the issue at the time. “It was purely a messaging bill from one legislator,” he wrote.

Rosenthal described Salazar as “a very kind, decent, loyal human being,” and “an excellent US Senator and an exceptional US Secretary of Interior.”

With Rosenthal out of the race, Salazar has thrown his support behind his former staffer, Ashley Wheeland, who has taken a more concrete, progressive stance on fracking than his other preferred candidates. Like her progressive opponent Emily Sirota, who is running with the backing of Senator Sanders, Wheeland supports the 2,500-foot setback, as well as giving localities the ability to ban the practice outright.

Anadarko, Jason Crow, Joe Neguse, and Robert Rodriguez did not respond to requests for comment. Frank James, WilmerHale’s media strategist, told The Intercept that Ken Salazar would be unable to provide a comment for this story.

On the surface, Salazar presents himself as a concerned environmentalist. His Twitter bio reads “Lover of America’s great outdoors,” and his Twitter feed is littered with posts about national parks, alternative energy, and preservation. He was recognized by the Denver Business Journal as one of the state’s most important leaders in the energy industry in 2017, and this year, he even appeared in a campaign ad for Weiser, in which he hands the AG hopeful a slip of paper reading, “Protect clean water! Protect public lands!”

But according to his cousin, the reality is quite different. “Ken Salazar doesn’t know what’s happening to real Coloradans,” Joe Salazar said. “He’s advocating for oil and gas with his head stuck in the tar sands.”

Correction: June 7, 2018, 2:21 p.m.
An earlier version of this story stated that the sexual harassment allegations against Colorado state Rep. Paul Rosenthal emerged in 2016. They were first reported in 2017.

Top photo: Former Secretary of the Interior and Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., greets members of the audience during a rally for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at the Colorado State Fairgrounds in Pueblo, Colo., on Oct. 12, 2016.

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