The Push for Energy Deregulation Threatens America's Heartland

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The Seattle Times

The Push for Energy Deregulation Threatens America's Heartland

In recent weeks, Washington has provided ample evidence that the fossil-fuel industry remains as powerful as ever in the wake of the Gulf Coast apocalypse. Whether it's Louisiana's Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu demanding more offshore drilling as her state gets covered in sludge, or Texas Republican Rep. Joe Barton criticizing the government for forcing BP to finance a spill-relief fund, major political players in D.C. still do energy firms' bidding, leaving both national parties disinclined to champion stronger environmental statutes.

Such Beltway intransigence is certainly atrocious, and has rightfully generated media fury. However, congressional reluctance to proactively legislate eco-friendly regulation is less outrageous than the state-based push for full-on deregulation.

The key political battlefield in this little-noticed but big-impact fight is Colorado, which holds one of the country's largest oil and natural gas reserves. In the state's 2010 gubernatorial campaign, former congressman Scott McInnis, a Republican, and Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, have turned the race into a competition to see who is more enthusiastic about shredding the minimal energy regulations already on the state's books.

Among the rules in question are: requirements that drillers consult with regulators when operating in sensitive wilderness, provisions creating no-drill buffers around drinking-water supplies and mandates that energy companies follow stricter waste-management guidelines.

To understand how crucial such regulations are in the Rocky Mountain region, just look at Chevron's 20,000-gallon petroleum spill in Utah a few weeks ago, peruse The Denver Post's recent report documenting 1,000 drilling-related spills in Colorado over the past two years, or watch the HBO documentary "Gasland" showing citizens in drilling country lighting their chemically contaminated tap water on fire.

Despite all this, and despite analysts now warning that Gulf-inspired offshore drilling restrictions could mean even more drilling throughout Colorado's fragile ecosystem, both McInnis and Hickenlooper last week told energy executives that they would try to weaken state environmental regulations if elected.

As a former oil lobbyist, McInnis was at least consistent in his "drill, baby, drill" posture. Hickenlooper, by contrast, had been billing himself as an environmental advocate. That is, until he launched his gubernatorial campaign by attacking environmentalists as "overboard," insisting he is skeptical about climate change's potential consequences, and now criticizing energy regulations as "onerous."

But, then, consistency (or lack thereof) is less troubling than both candidates dishonestly justifying their positions with old fables about the environmental rules allegedly hampering energy exploration and killing jobs.

These industry-manufactured claims, mind you, have been previously debunked. The Associated Press, for instance, has reported that though the recession hurt all energy producers including Colorado, the state still "led its energy-producing neighbors" in drilling permits last year — even with the rules.

Meanwhile, the Ft. Collins Coloradoan in February noted that "after years of claiming Colorado's new oil and gas regulations will chase the energy industry and its jobs from the state, oil and gas operators and an industry group are now saying the rules will have little impact on future energy development."

In light of those facts, the deregulatory push by McInnis and Hickenlooper can be viewed as the equivalent of trying to ramrod candy down a child's throat. So desperate to display their fealty to the fossil-fuel industry, the two candidates have resorted to force feeding oil and gas executives goodies — even if those executives say they don't need them.

Such persistence exposes the destructive corporatism baked into our politics. Suddenly, we can see both parties' ideological rejection of the Gulf Coast's "first do no harm" lesson in favor of industry's consequences-be-damned reflex.

That profiteering ethos, of course, originally birthed the Gulf crisis. Now, thanks to Colorado, it threatens yet more ecologically sensitive regions with the prospect of yet more man-made disasters.

David Sirota

David Sirota is a best-selling author whose new book "Back to Our Future" is now available. He hosts the morning show on AM760 in Colorado and is a contributing writer at Salon.com. E-mail him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.

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