Colorado U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter said the oil and gas industry will likely earn less money in the coming years as the world takes steps to more seriously address climate change. Perlmutter, a Democrat who represents a key swing district in a major oil- and gas-producing state, also declared that local communities should be permitted to make sure oil and gas development complies with zoning laws designed to protect schools and residential areas.
Perlmutter made his comments in a wide-ranging podcast interview with International Business Times. Subscribers can click here to listen to the full interview.
Colorado has been ground zero in the battle over fossil fuel development — local officials and oil and gas firms have been battling for years over whether and how drilling and fracking should be more stringently regulated. All of this could play out in the upcoming election, as environmentalists and business groups have taken steps to put competing initiatives on Colorado’s 2018 ballot.
During the interview, Perlmutter discussed what he believes Democrats must do to win swing districts like the suburban Denver area he represents. He also explained why he supports legislation in Congress to create a single-payer national health care system, and talked about whether he believes Mike Pence would be a better president than Donald Trump. He also disclosed why he abruptly dropped his plans for a 2018 gubernatorial run.
What follows is a lightly edited excerpt of the discussion, which is being released today after being recorded as Congress was preparing to come back into the final months of its 2017 session.
Do you believe public officials should discuss and debate climate change after natural disasters like hurricanes or wildfires?
I think that we want to help people get out of their homes and survive. That’s issue and priority number one, but priority number two is to talk about the environment and the fact that, one of the things they’ve seen as part of climate change is that systems move slower and they come and park themselves and that’s where the extreme weather comes from. The damage is because things don’t move out. And that’s precisely what we’ve seen in this particular Hurricane Harvey situation.
So first order, you take care of those people, you get them to safety, you make sure that they have provisions. Second order is make sure that you get in there and clean it up and try to bring things back to good order as quickly as possible but you got to talk about the fact that these kinds of major systems stall out and what is causing that.
Houston-area Republican Rep. Kevin Brady said a few years ago that "global warming is not an important topic for American families." Do you think people recognize the significance of climate change and putting the dots together between climate change and the challenges the world faces?
I think more and more people are putting those dots together. Kevin’s a friend of mine. I’m sorry that he thinks this should be set aside and not to be worried about. We’ve got to deal with the fact that there are changes going on to the climate and whether that’s putting in more weather satellites to be able to monitor this better, make sure we’re not polluting the atmosphere and causing the whole thing to get worse. I think he and many of the other Texas Republicans have sort of wanted to forget about this but they can’t and I’m afraid that this terrible tragedy just brings this in clear focus.
Volunteers and officers from the neighborhood security patrol helping to rescue residents in the upscale River Oaks neighborhood after it was inundated due to Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas, Aug. 27, 2017. Photo: Getty Images / Scott Olson
Colorado is a big oil and gas state. Do you think the fossil fuel industry can be as profitable, politically powerful, and as big an employer in a country that is doing what it needs to do to address climate change? Or are those two things in conflict?
There’s some conflict there. I think you know for us in our state, where we are an oil and gas producing state, oil and gas companies are substantial employers, we have to make sure we’re taking care of hardworking people. Again, we’re talking about priorities. We’ve got to make sure both locally as well as nationally and internationally that we’re putting the least amount of pollution and carbon into the atmosphere as possible. And that’s going to cost some money.
To your question, is it going to be less profitable? Probably. Profitability though in that business also comes from how much the Saudis are pumping. When they decide to drive the price down they do it to try to drive out competition. And we’ve seen that for two or three years. We’re at 45 bucks a barrel compared to 110 bucks a barrel three years ago.
Do you believe local communities should be allowed to regulate drilling and fracking? Or do you think the state and federal government should preempt those local regulations?
The way I look at it there’s sort of three components to this. What’s going on underground, what’s going on the surface and what’s happening in the air. So underground, what’s happening 15,000 feet down or 10,000 feet down, for me that is something that the federal government and the state government really should monitor and should regulate. The surface is like zoning, is like whether you have residential next to commercial next to industrial. That’s a local government responsibility. Historically that’s been their province, if you will.
The air, again, a matter of state and federal concern. So, when it comes to, I would say that oil and gas operations, drilling, refining, that’s very much an industrial type of activity and I believe local governments have a right in a zoning type of setting to manage that.
Do you support state officials in Colorado who have threatened to sue local communities when they try to regulate oil and gas development?
Depending on what the cases or what the local government is saying. If the local government is saying, look, you’re putting some pump jacks right next to a school and that doesn’t fit with our zoning or what we think should be on the surface here, I think that’s the proper authority of local government. If the local government’s trying to say, well, wait a second, you’ve put some chemical into the atmosphere and we don’t like that and we’re going to regulate you out of existence here, I think that’s more a matter of state and federal concern.
Do you believe local communities that have lately tried to regulate oil and gas are responding, in part, to their fears of President Trump’s deregulatory agenda?
As a general proposition a lot of people are fearful of the Trump administration and not just because of oil and gas things. So, that’s a much bigger question that you’re asking then is related strictly to oil and gas. So now, from a political standpoint, maybe that local government wants to take on more because they’re fearful that somebody else isn’t going to, but you still got the state government in there.
But from a basic way that I analyze these things, I’ve told you, I think they have the right, I think it’s appropriate for them to have zoning authority about mixing uses and when uses are in conflict, you got a lot of trucks driving up and down right next to a school, the local authority can say no, we don’t want that, it’s not safe.
Let’s talk more about the Trump administration. Have you heard any concerns about the president from your Republican colleagues in Congress?
I’ll give you one story and then we can talk sort of generally. This was right after the special prosecutor, special counsel [Robert] Mueller was appointed. We had a closed-door meeting with [Rod] Rosenstein who was acting, in this area as the acting attorney general. So we had that meeting, it was Democrats and Republicans. We then had a few votes.
There were a couple three Democrats got onto an elevator and then a friend of ours, Republican, nice guy but staunch Republican, toes the line. And he gets on and we’re kind of looking at him because now we’ve just been through this closed door briefing and he kind of looks at us, skittish really, and he says okay, okay, it’s been a half hour since I watched T.V. I know I’m three or four Trump stories behind.
They are all skittish. Now, does that mean that they’re not going to support the president and those kinds of things? Not so far. But I do know I have friends on the Republican side of the aisle that are nervous about this White House. Has that risen to a level where they’re prepared to do something? Well, I think the Russian sanctions was one place where the Congress did assert itself.
What about Mike Pence? You’ve worked with him when he was in Congress. What do you think he would be like as president if he were to replace President Trump?
I know Mike Pence. I served with him for I think five or six years before he was elected governor of Indiana. I’ve had debates with him on the floor of the House. We debated the Fairness Doctrine as to whether or not there should be equal time for opposing views and things like that. He’s a smart guy, very conservative, very socially conservative. Very much anti-abortion and those kind of things. I don’t think he’s an erratic or impulsive individual like I perceive the president to be.
Would you prefer Pence to be president instead of Trump?
I might…because I don’t think he’s as erratic or as unpredictable. I think Donald Trump prides himself on being unpredictable. I mean, he’s predictable in his unpredictability. Leadership even in tough times is to try to bring some sense of calm to people and not have them anxious all the time. I don’t see the president operating in this way. When things seem to start calming down then there’ll be a tweet to just stir everything up on a whole variety of subjects. That’s not good for the long term health of a community, a state, a nation.
You represent what was long considered a key swing district. There has been a debate about how Democrats can win these districts — some say they have to be more moderate, others say they have to be more progressive. That debate is now playing out once again in advance of the 2018 election. What’s your take?
I think that whether you consider yourself progressive or conservative or moderate or whatever, I think that if people, the folks you’re representing, your neighbors, the communities you represent, if they feel like you’re looking after their interests and helping maintain opportunities for their future and their kids’ future, whatever the label is, they’re going to support you.
It really comes down to, are you looking out for the hard-working people of your district or of the state or of the country. And if they feel that connection that you’re looking after and trying to help, and things are not easy but everybody’s got to take responsibility in their own lives as a society, as a community, to provide opportunities and platforms for everybody to seize opportunities if they want to. That’s what we’re looking for, you know what I mean? My caucus wants to talk about a better deal for Americans. That we make sure that people, if they want to go to college they have an opportunity to do that without a millstone around their neck of debt for decades to come. That we do build out our country, have it be competitive with infrastructure.
And so, for me it’s always been working for the hard-working people of the seventh congressional district. They’re right down the middle politically, they’re right down the middle socially and financially. If they feel you’re looking out for them, if they think, oh boy, he went, he was really far left to me on that one. But I know most of the time he’s right, he’s really working for my benefit, you’re going to get some cushion if you will for working with people…
I think it comes down to kind of the roots that you have in your community and understanding your neighbors and what their outlook on life is, what their desires are. I do feel our focus needs to be on those hard-working people. Very much I believe the Democratic Party has been the party that’s really helped build the middle class. I believe organized labor has and I believe public education. And that’s where we’ve got to stay with our focus. You know, businesses employ people. So, I like employers because they employ people and I want those people to have good jobs and make good incomes.
So, it’s not like I’m going to turn my back on business because they’re an important cog in the wheel of our economy. But I think our job as Democrats is to make sure that the hard-working people that are out in that district they know we’re fighting for them.
You made headlines a few months ago when you suddenly dropped your planned bid for governor. Why did you drop out of that race?
When [former U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar] stepped aside I said I’m going to get in. I had talked to [U.S. Rep. Jared Polis] in particular and he’s a friend of mine, been a friend of mine for a long time. We served together and we do lots of things, our offices work as a team. I asked him, I said can I have your support. And he said, well, you’ve got it unless I get in, but I don’t think I’m going to get in. Ultimately he decided to get in.
I knew I was biting off a lot to run for governor, to try to be a good member of Congress and do the job that I was elected to do by the people of Adams County and Jefferson County and then to raise the money that’s needed for a governor’s race and get around the state — and Colorado is a big state to introduce myself to people…
I think when Jared got in, I had to look even harder at where this was all going because I knew I was working 24/7 before he got in. And the fund raising levels in Colorado are a fifth of what you can raise in a federal race. Very limited ability to get PAC money or anything else. It’s a big race in a pretty purple state. It’s no sure thing that the Democrat or Republican is going to win the governor’s race. And so you’ve got to raise a lot of money. It’s a target for both national parties.
I was spending all my time dialing for dollars. And I just realized I was, you know, running myself right into the ground. When Jared got in, obviously he has very deep pockets. There were three people running. Noel Ginsburg, Cary Kennedy and Michael Johnston. They’ve got all sorts of time to do things. Jared gets in, he’s got all sorts of money to do things and I’m sort of in the middle of it all. I completely was exhausting myself.
You have been a supporter of the Affordable Care Act, but you are also a co-sponsor of legislation to create a government-funded single payer health care system. Why do you support that and have you faced any pushback for supporting it?
I was part of the Australian American Leadership Conference: it was two Democrats, two Republicans, lots of our military, lots of diplomats. Australia has a system where they have kind of a single payer basic system that everybody in the country takes advantage of. And, if you want to have more bells and whistles you can buy insurance on top of it, which I think would be something that a lot of Americans would gravitate to, you know, to have the basics.
Now, it may take longer to get in for a knee operation than you would want but if you were in a place in life where you could buy additional insurance you may be able to go in earlier but we know that the basics, the basic health care of the citizens of the country is provided for. I was very intrigued by the Australian approach…
I’ve not received any pushback yet but I haven’t been in any real heated debates with Republicans on this yet or somebody who might be opposed to it…
I’m willing to work on improving the ACA and I’ve got a bill that I think would help improve ACA which is transparency in pricing so that if you go into the hospital, you’ve got a good idea what you’re going to get charged before you go in. Now sometimes there’s an emergency and the doctors don’t know what they’re going to find until they get inside but there are a lot of times where it’s very much a similar kind of operation and you don’t know from hospital A to hospital B to whatever what the charges might be. I think that will help the consumer, the patient, know better what things are going to cost before the operation occurs or whatever the procedure is.