Denver Post’s Latest Oil and Gas Story Raises Questions About the State of Journalism in Colorado

The Denver Post has long been a mainstay of objectivity and news reporting in Colorado. But when we picked up the paper over the weekend and read a story titled, “What does $80 million buy oil and gas interests?,” we wondered how a story that reads like an anti-oil and gas activist blog made it to print.

For starters, the Post piece bears an eerie resemblance to a May article, written by “progressive journalist” David Sirota, that spun a narrative on oil and natural gas development in the state that was punctuated by unfounded claim after unfounded claim. Sirota teamed up with non-profit organization MapLight for the piece, and, of course, MapLight is funded by large foundations opposed to fossil fuel development – the same usual suspects Energy in Depth has covered before, like George Soros’ group, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Rockefeller Family Fund, the Tides Foundation, and the Park Foundation, that regularly fund “news” targeting oil and natural gas companies.

We at Energy In Depth were not surprised when Sirota, “an anti-corporate outsider from the [Democratic] party’s Sanders wing” according to Buzzfeed and “Colorado’s most famous openly liberal journalist” according to Colorado Politics, wrote a partisan piece against oil and natural gas development. But we were disappointed to read the same partisan language and activist talking points in the pages of the Denver Post, and to see the paper deny its readers an objective view of the debate on energy in Colorado today.

Let’s take a look at some of the facts on oil and natural gas development in Colorado that the Denver Post left out of its reporting.

1) Energy development is not a partisan issue in Colorado: Both Democrats and Republicans in the state support safe and responsible energy development.

To support the claim that the debate on oil and natural gas development is split down party lines, the Post provides examples of legislation introduced by some of the Democrats most opposed to fossil fuels in the state legislature – and subsequently rejected by their Republican colleagues – as a reflection of the polarized nature of the issue.

But Democratic leaders of the state, including Gov. John Hickenlooper and U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Ken Salazar, have a long history of supporting oil and natural gas development and of presenting a united, bipartisan front against efforts to ban fracking in the state.

In fact, this support for oil and natural gas development in Colorado has created a rift within the Democratic Party, best illustrated by the demise of the 2014 anti-fracking ballot initiatives that “may well be viewed one day as the first tug on the thread that ultimately unraveled the current incarnation of the Democratic Party,” according to Boulder Weekly:

“[In 2002], a handful of Colorado millionaires and billionaires, political consultants and a few politicians came up with a brilliant — at least it seemed so at the time — plan to flip Colorado from red to blue on the political map. Their plan worked so well it has now been exported to more than 20 states and has become the model used by the Democratic Party on the national level for seizing and holding power. …

“The decision to pull the anti-fracking ballot measures in Colorado on Aug. 4 may well be viewed one day as the first tug on the thread that ultimately unraveled the current incarnation of the Democratic Party as well as its codependent national environmental organizations.”

Even “arguably the most sophisticated political machine in the country,” as described by progressive outlet Mother Jones, is no match for the “Colorado Way”: In Colorado, leaders across the political spectrum and stakeholders representing diverse interests regularly come together to tackle challenges, from the oil and natural gas task force the governor convened in 2014 that included elected officials, industry representatives, and environmental groups, to the crafting of air regulations that some contend are the toughest in the country. This spirit and practice of collaboration should be applauded and encouraged – not minimized in the interest of playing up partisan politics.

2) The energy industry in Colorado is transparent about its political spending. But what about special interest groups opposed to fossil fuels?

The Post piece focuses on political spending by companies in the oil and natural gas industry, and the companies made that easy by disclosing their political contributions on their websites. But what about those who fund anti-energy political candidates as part of their campaign to ban oil and natural gas development?

We do know that California billionaire Tom Steyer spent $7 million alone attempting to defeat U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner (R) as part of his anti-fossil fuel agenda. It’s also been uncovered that Steyer and other big donors pour money into anti-oil and gas groups like League of Conservation Voters, Hispanic Access Foundation, and Conservation Colorado. But that’s just the beginning. Steyer and other national environmental organizations are also spending big on statewide races and activists causes – like Greenpeace, a main source for the Post story that has played a major role in the effort to ban fracking and oil and natural gas development in Colorado.

It certainly is not as though the Denver Post is not aware of the funders behind activist groups in the state: A Post reporter admitted after the 2016 campaign that the paper should have reported on Steyer’s influence in Colorado. But while the Post diligently mapped industry funding in, say, Democratic state senate candidate Rachel Zenzinger’s race, it failed – again – to note that Steyer’s money was part of that race, too, among other state legislative campaigns.

3) Anti-fracking ballot measures are opposed by environmental groups, too.

Even though the Denver Post wrote that “[e]nvironmentalists” failed to get enough signatures to put anti-fracking measures on the ballot last year, the paper neglected to mention that the measures faced resistance from environmentalists as well. Although out-of-state activist groups called the measures “one of the biggest environmental fights in the country this year,” their enthusiasm was not shared by many within the environmental community. As Politico reported at the time, “Some mainstream environmentalists hope the ballot items will quietly die instead.” “If I were a betting person, I would not bet they would get on the ballot,” a Colorado environmentalist told Politico.

Although they may have changed their tune in the intervening years, some environmental groups were opposed – and indeed “accused of working to obstruct” – the 2014 anti-fracking ballot measures that were sponsored by current gubernatorial candidate U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (D). Hours after Polis reached a compromise with the governor and withdrew the measures, the activist in charge of pushing the anti-fracking initiatives that year blamed national environmental groups in an email sent to supporters, according to Boulder Weekly:

“In fact, we were being actively blocked by three of the largest national enviro groups in the nation — Sierra Club, Environment America, and to a lesser extent LCV (national, not the CO chapter). We can do a lot with grassroots movements; but at the end of the day it takes money to win campaigns of this scale and with that obstructionism we were left in a very difficult position.”

The bottom line

We at Energy in Depth have a tremendous amount of respect for the Denver Post and the reporters who staff its newsroom. But in the case of the piece the paper published over the weekend, we are concerned that the reporting lacks balance, even though and especially because the article appears in the news section.

The oil and natural gas industry made it easy for the Post to write this story by making its political contributions public, transparent, and readily available, but the same cannot be said of the other side of this debate – the side that ultimately informed the direction and coverage of the issue this time around. We hope that in due time, the Post will give this gap in coverage the attention and examination that it deserves.

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