BRIGHTON, Colo. – Cory Gardner, the junior senator from Colorado and head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is addressing a crowd of factory workers clad in blue work shirts and orange hard hats. They wouldn’t look out of place among the coal miners and oil field hands who pack President Trump’s rallies.
This isn’t one of those rallies, however, as is made clear when Gardner offers a full-throated defense of the production tax credit, a federal subsidy for wind energy. The crowd claps in hearty approval.
“You know, harvesting the wind is something we’ve done for generations in this country,” Gardner says. “From the windmills that have operated watering our cattle to the incredible ways you’ve harnessed it. It’s pretty remarkable, and it’s American-made. Made right here in Colorado. It is truly a great story we should be highlighting and focusing on. And I think renewable energy presents the ultimate future for this country. To be able to power a factory, to be able to power our industry with abundant, affordable, renewable energy. What a bright and brilliant future that is for all of us.”
When Gardner was elected in 2014, knocking off incumbent Sen. Mark Udall (D), he promised to be a different sort of Republican. In one campaign spot, he posed in front of a collection of wind turbines on the Colorado prairie and pledged to support renewables.
But exactly what sort of Republican Gardner has become since he arrived in the Senate is a matter of some debate here in the Rocky Mountain State. Supporters see him as a true “all-of-the-abover,” a rare politician whose support of coal, oil and renewables is more than just lip service.
“I have nothing but praise for Sen. Gardner,” said Stan Dempsey, head of the Colorado Mining Association and a longtime Gardner acquaintance. Dempsey doesn’t much care for Gardner’s support of the PTC, but that doesn’t color his opinion of the senator.
“I think he’s an incredibly strong supporter of all energy sources produced in Colorado,” he said.
Detractors call him an enabler for the Trump administration, one who voted to confirm EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. They point to his flagging poll numbers – one recent survey by the University of Colorado, Boulder, put his approval rating at 25 percent – and say his support of renewables is simply a ploy to boost his re-election prospects in a state Hillary Clinton won in 2016. Gardner is up for re-election in 2020, when he will share the ballot with Trump.
“He does the bare minimum on the environment in order to get the political credit,” said Jessica Goad, deputy director for Conservation Colorado, the state’s affiliate for the League of Conservation Voters. “It’s one thing to hold a press conference or to cut a TV ad supporting renewables, it’s another thing to put your name on a bill and fight for what’s right.”
For the wind industry, Gardner’s presence in Brighton could answer another open question: Have renewables finally become so mainstream that they can attract serious bipartisan support?
Wind plays well with others
Three years ago, Gardner voted against a nonbinding measure to extend the PTC for five years (E&E Daily, Jan. 29, 2015). Later that year, he supported a spending bill that lifted the ban on oil exports in exchange for a gradual phaseout of the tax incentives for wind and solar.
On this April morning, he’s at Vestas Wind Systems factory to receive an award from the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group, for his support of the industry during the recent negotiations over tax reform. A proposed provision in the tax bill would have effectively wiped out the benefits of the PTC (Climatewire, Dec. 5, 2017). Gardner opposed it, and the provision was ultimately dropped.
Vestas may offer an explanation for his shifting stance. The Danish turbine maker now employs nearly 3,500 people across four factories in Colorado. Here in Brighton, workers make nacelles, the modules that sit atop a turbine and house much of its controls.
Chris Brown, the company’s director of sales and services in North America, introduces Gardner to the Vestas crowd as a politician who “walks the talk,” and jokes he has encouraged the Colorado senator to consider a run for higher office.
“It’s not hard to get to love him and respect him,” Brown says.
Gardner is a relative latecomer to the wind party.
“Those of us who worked diligently for decades on the system in Colorado were not familiar with him as part of early efforts to integrate wind,” said Ron Lehr, an independent consultant who formerly served on the Colorado Public Utilities Commission and worked for AWEA.
But he said he was not surprised by the senator’s embrace of wind. Colorado’s power sector is undergoing tremendous change. Xcel Energy Inc., the state’s largest utility and a major Gardner donor ($44,950 since 2013), is pursuing plans to shutter several coal plants and replace their power with large amounts of wind and solar. The utility estimates more than half its power in Colorado will be generated by wind and solar by 2026.
Wind developers, meanwhile, have pumped money into small eastern Colorado communities like Gardner’s hometown of Yuma, helping to diversify their agriculture-heavy economies, Lehr said.
“It’s now a very substantial piece of the economy,” he said. “It does have an impact.”
The results have not been lost on Gardner. At Vestas, he talks about the ranchers he knows who are suffering through a period of low commodity prices. Things have gotten so bad, the Colorado Department of Agriculture has established a suicide hotline. In many cases, lease payments from turbines on their properties have helped keep many ranchers afloat.
“This is saving people’s life, saving their farms,” Gardner said.
Splitting the difference
Gardner’s support of wind has not come at the expense of other fuels.
Like other members of the Republican leadership, Gardner boasts close ties with the fossil fuel industry. Koch Industries Inc. ($67,200) and Anadarko Petroleum Corp. ($58,500) are Gardner’s second and third largest campaign contributors since 2013, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Even one of Gardner’s more notable green achievements is emblematic of his ties to oil and gas. In 2010, Gardner was one of several Republicans in the Colorado Legislature to support a bill that led to the closure of several coal plants. The bill had the backing of the natural gas industry, which saw an opportunity to replace coal in Colorado.
“He went to war for oil and gas when we fought [former Democratic] Gov. [Bill] Ritter,” said the Colorado Mining Association’s Dempsey, who is also a former head of the Colorado Petroleum Association. “He carried a lot of the strategy in carrying different amendments. He was the guy leading the charge.”
Gardner is not the only Republican to embrace wind. Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley is perhaps the best known Republican supporter of the PTC. John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, has been similarly supportive of federal wind subsidies over the years.
But the Colorado senator’s support for the industry remains something of an outlier in his party, and particularly among members of the Senate leadership. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, and John Barrasso, chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, hail from prominent coal states in Kentucky and Wyoming, respectively. Assistant leader John Cornyn of Texas is a favorite of the oil and gas industry.
Gardner, for his part, says he is trying to bridge the gap between his party, fossil fuels and the burgeoning wind industry in his state. One of his first presentations to his Senate colleagues was on ethanol, he recalled in an interview after the Vestas event.
“I think my exact quote was, ‘Just because I say the word “renewable,” don’t let the hair on the back of your neck stick up,’” Gardner said. “We should be for that just like we are for oil and gas, just like we’re for any other energy product that you can make here.”
Wind interests are happy to have such a powerful ally. Earlier this year, when President Trump announced his decision to impose tariffs on Chinese steel imports, Gardner was quick to voice his displeasure. His opposition to the tariffs was largely framed around concern that America’s trading partners would retaliate with similar measures against U.S. agricultural exports. But the position was also favored by Vestas, a major steel consumer.
At the Vestas event, AWEA CEO Tom Kiernan attributed the industry’s growth in part to Gardner: “We would not be working as hard as we’re working, you would not be as busy as you are, if it weren’t for Sen. Gardner’s leadership and support in Washington, D.C.”