After months of tip-toeing around the issue, the Democrat running for a key seat on the University of Colorado Board of Regents now says she will not support fossil-fuel divestment at CU.
“I do not support divestment,” Alice Madden, a former state House majority leader and Obama administration official, said in a statement to Complete Colorado.
Madden, an accomplished Democratic insider who recently took a six-figure job at CU’s law school, is running for a statewide seat on the Board of Regents. Her opponent, Republican Heidi Ganahl, is a small business owner and political newcomer. They are vying to replace Republican Steve Bosley, and if Democrats win this race, they will form a majority on the board for the first time since 1979.
Anti-fossil fuel activists are supporting Madden because they believe a Democratic majority will vote to divest CU’s endowment from any investments touching fossil fuels – oil, natural gas and coal.
Steyer-funded groups back Madden
“Let’s make sure our Democrat regents are elected this fall across the state, so that we not only divest, but we address all the issues on our campus of justice and sustainability,” said Fossil Free CU, the local chapter of 350.org’s national fossil-fuel divestment campaign, at a campus rally in March. Madden, who was a climate policy adviser to Gov. Bill Ritter (D) and an Obama political appointee at the U.S. Department of Energy, has also been endorsed by Conservation Colorado – a state-level subsidiary of the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) in Washington, D.C.
“Getting out of these investments makes financial sense,” John Powers, a Conservation Colorado board member and supporter of fossil-fuel divestment, wrote in response to an earlier column on the CU Regents race in March. “Investing in coal is bad financially for the University of Colorado,” he continued. “Investing in gas is bad financially for the University of Colorado.”
All three groups supporting Madden’s candidacy – 350.org, Conservation Colorado and LCV – have close ties to California billionaire Tom Steyer, who is a huge supporter of fossil-fuel divestment. Steyer has donated at least $500,000 to 350.org, $475,000 to LCV and $200,000 to Conservation Colorado’s campaign arm in recent years. Conservation Colorado held an awards dinner in Steyer’s honor last year and the group’s parent organization works hand in hand with the California billionaire.
“There’s not a day that goes by that someone on our team doesn’t talk to someone on the Steyer team,” LCV President Gene Karpinski told the Washington Post during the 2014 election. This year, the LCV plans to spend $40 million on elections across the country and Steyer’s political action committee, NextGen Climate, will spend more than $55 million, according to the Post. And college divestment activists across 200 campuses in seven states – including Colorado – will be part of Steyer’s voter turnout operation, NextGen Climate announced in April.
A tough balancing act
The support of anti-fossil fuel activists in Colorado – one of the top oil, gas and coal producing states in the nation – has put Madden in a tough position. Getting too close to the environmental left, as former U.S. Sen. Mark Udall (D) did two years ago, carries major risks. But angering her political base is risky, too.
For this reason, Madden has spent months talking up climate change as one of the most important issues in the race, as if the CU Board of Regents will be debating carbon cap-and-trade legislation or negotiating an international agreement on global warming after the election. But she has also spent months artfully avoiding a simple “yes” or “no” question: Do you support fossil-fuel divestment?
In March, after divestment activists endorsed her campaign, the Daily Caller reported that the “devoted global warming activist” was “being coy about her position on fossil fuel divestment.” She would only say that CU’s investments should be “based on receiving a sound financial return.”
In July, in an interview with The Colorado Independent, Madden expressed admiration for the fossil-fuel divestment campaign and took a step in their direction by endorsing Environmental Social Justice Governance criteria, or ESG, for CU’s investment pool.
“I admire the people behind [divestment] because I worked on divestment from South Africa — it was my first protest — so I admire any kind of activism by young people, and I’ve told them that I prefer ESG and I just think it’s a better way to go,” she told the Independent. “This is not the end-all-be-all of the race.”
But in the same story, Republican CU Regent John Carson wasn’t buying it. “If the Democrats get control, I think they would vote to bring that divestment back up,” he said. In 2015, the Republican-controlled board rejected a divestment proposal from Fossil Free CU and 350.org in a bipartisan 7-2 vote.
In September, Madden got the fossil-fuel divestment question again during a public-radio interview in Boulder. This time, she took a new approach to avoiding the question. “There’s nine members on the Regents, and there’s not enough votes, and there won’t be enough votes whether I’m elected or not, to pass divestment, Madden said. “So I don’t like to promise things to people that can’t happen.”
At the same time, she did promise a “progressive” step in the direction of divestment – imposing ESG criteria on CU’s investments – if Democrats win control of the university board. “That’s something I think we could do in the first 100 days,” she said.
In some ways, Madden is caught in the same political crosscurrents as Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who has tried to court anti-fossil fuel activists and, at the same time, appeal to voters who support oil, natural gas and coal production.
The influence of Steyer and ‘keep it in the ground’ groups
To be clear, if Madden really does oppose fossil-fuel divestment, that’s a great thing for CU and the state of Colorado. Fossil-fuel divestment is a costly political stunt. It causes real financial harm to universities and college students, but doesn’t do anything to help the environment. It only seeks to demonize and stigmatize the men and women of Colorado’s oil, gas and coal industries so their elected officials won’t listen to them when energy policy is being debated in Denver and in Washington, D.C.
Fossil-fuel divestment is just another part of the “keep it in the ground” movement, right alongside this year’s failed anti-fracking ballot measures in Colorado. And the activists keep pushing this awful idea, even though it’s been rejected by dozens of universities – including Harvard, MIT, Notre Dame and the University of Michigan – and debunked by the Denver Post.
There’s even a fossil-fuel divestment campaign going on today at the University of Denver, which I have personally spoken against with the pro-industry group Divestment Facts and dozens of Colorado energy professionals, many of them DU alums and students.
But the question has to be asked: If fossil-fuel divestment is such an obviously bad idea, why did Alice Madden wait more than six months to clearly state her opposition? The answer is also obvious: She did not want to anger fringe environmental groups or the donors who fund them, especially Tom Steyer, who has become a huge player in Colorado politics in recent years.
This whole episode speaks volumes about the influence of the environmental left over Colorado politics today. If a political insider and energy policy expert like Alice Madden is afraid to upset these groups, then we all have something to worry about.
Simon Lomax is an associate energy policy analyst with the Independence Institute and a consultant who advises pro-business groups. From 2004 to 2012, he was a news reporter covering energy and environmental policy in Washington, D.C. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.