Republican Sen. Cory Gardner has spent his first term embracing Colorado’s booms in clean energy as well as oil and gas production.
He’s about to learn whether that balancing act pays off politically in a state that swung Democratic in the last three presidential elections. Environment, climate change, and energy are areas in which Gardner believes he appeals to a wide spectrum of voters.
“I am a pro-clean energy, pro-environment, pro-conservation Republican,” Gardner told Bloomberg Environment, rattling off his work as a lead Republican on a conservation-public lands package as well as efforts on renewable energy and energy storage.
“Republicans, and I’ve said this before, shouldn’t let the hair on the back of their neck stand up when they hear the words renewable energy,” he said.
Gardner accepts global warming science, yet voted to scrap Obama-era environment and climate regulations. He backs fossil fuels, but also draws praise from conservation and renewable energy groups for efforts to strengthen the Land and Water Conservation Fund and providing tax incentives for clean energy, battery storage, and other energy storage technologies.
Among Most Vulnerable
Gardner and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) are the only Senate Republicans running in states that President Donald Trump lost in 2016, and they are considered among the most vulnerable GOP senators in 2020. Gardner’s race is considered a toss-up by political analysts, including the Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball.
The Colorado Republican was rated fifth for working across party lines based on a bipartisan ranking of the 115th Congress by the Lugar Center for Public Policy and Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy.
Gardner helped shepherd legislation (P. Law 116-9) that President Donald Trump signed in March permanently extending the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which adds tracts to national parks and wildlife refuges.
He’s among six Republicans pushing a bipartisan measure (S. 1081) to guarantee LWCF funding, authorized at $900 million annually.
Gardner has voted with his party 95 percent of the time, according to Bloomberg Government data, and his 10% lifetime score on environmental votes by the League of Conservation Voters ranks below eight Republican colleagues.
Some Republicans question LCV’s ratings because they include votes on confirmations of judges, secretary of state nominations, and immigration.
Conservation Colorado Deputy Director Jessica Goad said Gardner deserves some credit on conservation and “was critical” to securing clean energy incentives.
The senator “did not have much to lose by really being a champion on these issues,” Goad said, criticizing votes to scrap Obama’s power plant carbon limits and other environmental rules.
Fossil Fuel Funding
The Democratic primary candidates for Gardner’s seat include Dan Baer, a former Obama administration official; John Walsh, a former U.S attorney for Colorado; and Alice Madden (D), a former Colorado House majority leader.
“Instead of taking any action and building an inclusive clean energy economy in the process, our senator has aligned himself” with fossil fuels and Trump’s “climate-denier” agenda, Madden said.
Oil and gas industry political action committees and individuals giving $200 or more contributed $233,471 toward Gardner’s re-election in the first half of 2019, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That made him the top Senate recipient of oil and gas donations so far this year.
His campaign also collected $5,500 from alternative energy interests, according to CRP. That’s a small fraction of the $4 million contributed by all donors, according to Bloomberg Government data.
Environmental Votes Highlighted
Gardner—who in a 2014 campaign video asked, “So what’s a Republican like me doing at a wind farm?"—has made clean energy a central theme. The American Wind Energy Association awarded him its 2018 “Wind Champion” award.
He also voted to scrap stream-protection regulations and oil and gas methane limits; backed the 2017 tax bill that opened part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling; and voted to confirm Trump nominees that environmental groups strongly opposed, including former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Pruitt’s successor Andrew Wheeler, and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.
Touting fossil fuels along with clean energy is a nod to the strength of both in Colorado. Crude oil production has quadrupled there since 2010, according to January Energy Information Administration figures, and it’s the fifth-largest natural gas-producing state. Meanwhile, the state has more than doubled the electricity it gets from renewable sources over the last decade.
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), who has worked closely with Gardner on legislation (S. 1142) promoting battery and other energy storage technologies, called the Republican “a legitimate partner.” But Heinrich said it’s unclear whether Gardner’s backing ensures action in a Republican-controlled chamber that rarely debates major energy initiatives.
“We have to make sure that we can actually get this stuff done, and so I think it’s incumbent on both sides to do what it takes to get this [bill] across the finish line,” Heinrich said.
On climate change, Gardner favors technological innovations—carbon capture technologies and more funding for National Renewable Energy Laboratory facilities in his state, among them—and said Colorado has already seen effects, from years of drought to increasing pine beetle infestations.
His first 2019 hearing chairing a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee panel focused on climate science research, which he opened by saying he accepts the “consensus within the scientific community.” He co-chairs a new Roosevelt Conservation Caucus made up of Republicans hoping to highlight environmental action.
Scientists warn that barring dramatic action, the world’s nations are on pace to surpass the global goal holding temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).
Gardner said he continues to pursue bills that “would be very, very favorable toward the climate.”
“People of Colorado get it when we talk about energy,” Gardner said. “They understand we need jobs on the Western Slope and the eastern plains. They understand that we need clean energy. And they understand that we need to move to a carbon-free, emissions-reduced future.”
But, he added, “We need to be practical about it. We can’t cold-start something that will kill the economy.”
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