The controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing carries “literally no risk” if done correctly, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said during a conversation that covered his support for natural gas extraction at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference at the Aspen Institute on Tuesday.
Hickenlooper said that the controversial process of “fracking,” which has led to environmental concerns and protests over drilling on public lands in local areas like the Thompson Divide, could lead to cleaner fuel for cars and domestic job growth. Fracking entails injecting a cocktail of water, sand and chemicals under high pressure deep into the ground to break up rock formations and release natural gas.
“Like any industrial process, fracking has some risks but, really, if done properly, certainly out in the West, there is literally no risk — certainly much less than many industrial processes,” he said in a public interview with Fortune magazine’s Andy Serwer.
“So you’re a pro-fracking Democrat?” Serwer asked rhetorically.
Hickenlooper met with Detroit automakers Monday, he noted, lobbying for advancements on compressed natural gas cars that would expand the market for fracking-produced gas.
The fracking issue came up as Hickenlooper discussed business growth in Colorado, also mentioning sectors like aerospace and agriculture technology.
Opponents of fracking cite evidence that it pollutes local watersheds and air quality, and poses risks of contaminating aquifers. Local opponents have said building roads to natural gas sites would also harm wildlife and forest health.
Hickenlooper said natural gas is a logical go-to fuel for the United States, as opposed to foreign oil.
“In terms of climate change gases, in terms of normal old-fashioned pollutants, what have you, it’s way cleaner,” he said. “It creates jobs in the United States and it doesn’t send millions of dollars to foreign dictatorships. I mean, why aren’t we having more vehicles run on compressed natural gas?”
The governor, a trained geologist, pointed out that he spent two years doing research for his master’s degree in the wilderness north of Yellowstone National Park and labeled himself an environmentalist. But natural gas drilling, he said, is necessary for American prosperity.
“I love open space and wilderness,” he said, “but we all drive cars, right? And we all need energy. We recognize that, along with education, energy is the other necessary component to lifting people out of poverty.”
Along with the natural gas boom that has contributed to the state’s economy and transformed much of the Western Slope over the last decade, Hickenlooper noted that the state has become a leader in renewable energy technology.
“Oil and gas has been a big industry for a long time,” he said. “Certainly with horizontal drilling and fracking it has been a major employer over the last ten years, but we are also one of the top three states for solar, top three states for wind.”
Addressing the crowd of tech business leaders and internet innovators at the Fortune conference, which wraps up today, Hickenlooper also said that American politicians could learn a lesson from businesses when it comes to campaigning.
He suggested every politician should work in the restaurant business, as he did in Denver before going into politics, to learn about customer service. He added that “attack ads” don’t exist outside of politics, because, he believes, they don’t work.
“You’ll never see Ford do an attack ad against [GM], you’ll never see Coke do an attack ad against Pepsi,” he said, “because they know it destroys the market. The short-term benefits of these attack ads, really, are decaying the utility of democracy.”
He told of how after his election in November 2010, he brought entrepreneur and author Geoffrey Smart on board to help him hire staff using the theories outlined in Smart’s book, “Who,” and how he’s used technological advances to cut the state budget and government staff.
Asked how he governs a decidedly “purple” constituency in Colorado, with what Serwer noted spans “the backpackers of Boulder and the Bible-thumpers of Colorado Springs all in one happy place,” Hickenlooper said he tries to find common ground and not divide people on social issues. Civil unions for same sex couples, he said, are an exception, and he took a stand supporting them because of his civil rights principles.
“You can’t back off on things like that,” he said.