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Sen. Mark Udall On Immigration, Fracking, NSA Surveillance, GMOs And More

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Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Sen. Mark Udall has been all over television railing against the National Security Agency's recently exposed surveillance of Americans, but when he stopped by the Daily Camera's newsroom Saturday he had an equally pressing matter on his mind: the immigration bill up for Senate vote this week.

Udall, a Democrat who lives in Eldorado Springs, supports the bill crafted by the so-called "Gang of Eight" -- four Republican senators and four Democrats -- that calls for a military-like surge in border security and a 13-year path to citizenship for millions of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.

Over the course of a 20-minute interview, Udall also discussed the NSA scandal, as well as some of Boulder County's most pressing issues, from fracking and wildfires to legalized marijuana and Boulder's exploration of a possible city-run electric utility

Plus, he defended his recent vote against GMO labeling ("I disagree with those that suggest that somehow... my vote was a vote in favor of letting the big agricultural producers do whatever they wanted").

The following interview is presented in full:

Q: Why do you support the "Gang of Eight's" immigration reform bill?

A: I support it because it has the right balance of securing our borders, requiring employers to hire people who are here legally, and it provides a pathway for legal status and, ultimately, citizenship for some 11 million people who are here.

It also keeps families together. So it's balanced, it's fair.

It will create certainty in our labor markets and it's long overdue.

Q: If passed, how do you think the legislation will affect communities like Boulder, which has a large number of high tech, entrepreneurial companies, and a major university at which young immigrants may already qualify for lower tuition thanks to the Colorado ASSET bill?

A: It will affect Boulder and Boulder County in many positive ways. You mentioned the DREAMers. There are many young people here in Boulder County who cannot qualify for tuition at reasonable rates because they were brought here at very young ages. I've met many of them. They're outstanding. They're Americans in every way except they don't have the right piece of paper.

It'll also be a great boon in Boulder County because the efforts that are underway to invite and include foreign entrepreneurs to be a part of the American experience.

I have an amendment to the immigration reform package. I've worked on this for many years: the start-up visa concept.

If you have capital in an idea and you want to pursue that idea here in the United States, we're gonna provide you with a visa. One in four new businesses are started by first-generation immigrants. A significant portion of Fortune 500 companies in the start-up category have been started by first-generation immigrants.

America is a land of immigrants. Immigration is a way in which to refresh the American dream.

It's a win-win for everybody. Boulder County in particular will see some real upsides.

Q: How do you feel about the way Gov. John Hickenlooper and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission have handled communities that attempt to regulate oil and gas exploration within their own boundaries -- and who do you feel should have the ultimate authority to say whether fracking should be permitted in individual towns and counties?

A: This is an important debate. Boulder County is right at the center of it. There has to be a balance. Local communities have to have a say in if and where drilling occurs.

I think we all agree that it's an industrial process and schoolyards and city parks and open space are probably not the best places -- given the abundant gas reserves that we have -- to initially drill.

I know the governor is working in every way he possibly can to bring everybody to the table. I know the question of the state's oversight versus local community oversight will be determined in the courts, but from my vantage point, I'm encouraging everybody to sit at the same table, understand that the goals I think everybody shares are the same, but we differ on how to reach those goals.

Q: You've been a vocal critic of the NSA during the current surveillance scandal. What's your opinion of the charges the government is pursuing against Edward Snowden?

A: On the NSA surveillance, I've long called for the intelligence community to be more forthcoming and transparent about their surveillance of Americans.

I'm someone who doesn't diminish the threat of terrorism. We've seen the terrible effects of an event like 9/11. At the same time, we have to stand up and protect the Bill of Rights.

We have, I think, been operating more in a way that is based on blind trust versus informed consent when it comes to the public's knowledge of what's happening, what is being done in their name.

So I've called for a public airing of the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) and Patriot Act laws. It feels to me that you have a secret court interpreting a law and -- in a secret setting -- issuing secret orders on a secret program. I'd like to have much more knowledge.

And then, if the public believes this widespread collection of phone records is appropriate, then perhaps my point of view won't prevail.

But I think there is a way to narrow this. I will introduce and push for a bill that would limit the access to Americans' phone records. There should be a nexus or a direct link to terrorism or espionage.

Right now, as we've come to know, Americans' phone records are swept up on a large-scale basis, and it hasn't been demonstrated to me that we are collecting uniquely valuable intelligence through the so-called 215 program.

Now as for Mr. Snowden, I'm not a lawyer. I abhor leaks. At the same time, he has every right to the legal process, and I anticipate the Department of Justice and Attorney General (Eric) Holder will bring their charges, will work through the legal system, and Mr. Snowden will have a chance to make his case.

And at this point that's where we are.

Q: You recently voted against an amendment to the farm bill that would have allowed states to pass laws requiring food products containing GMOs be labeled as such. Why?

A: My vote was based on this belief: If we have 50 states, all with their own standards, you may end up with actually a crazy quilt of regulations and requirements that, in the end, wouldn't necessarily benefit consumers.

I know there are those who disagree with me, but my belief, my understanding is that the FDA is moving in the way of labeling and demanding that the food industry be transparent in what's involved in the production of the food they're presenting to consumers.

So I disagree with those that suggest that somehow my vote was a vote in favor of no regulations or that my vote was a vote in favor of letting the big agricultural producers do whatever they wanted.

In fact, my vote was based on a belief that the FDA's standing up for consumers, will do the right thing, and that if we had 50 different regulations, actually consumers might not be well served.

And I welcome further comments -- and I've heard quite a few -- from constituents.

... One other thing I want to trumpet when it comes to Boulder County: We are one of the centers of healthy, nutritious, organic food production. And I know that, in my core, and when it comes to GMOs and the importance of making sure people know what's in their foods, I'm gonna be right there with consumers.

I'm gonna be right there with the people of Boulder County.

Q: What's the latest you've heard from the Department of Justice when it comes to Colorado's legalization of recreational marijuana -- and do you feel the federal government should respect the will of Colorado's voters on this issue?

A: The federal government should respect the will of the voters.

I am taking the lead, along with Congressman (Jared) Polis, in communicating with the federal government.

Now that the state has laid out its laws and its implementation plans, I think we can have more concrete and definitive discussions with the Department of Justice.

There are legitimate concerns about the overlay of federal law and state law.

There are concerns that surrounding states have when it comes to interstate sales and interstate trafficking of recreational marijuana. But I remain confident and optimistic that we can find the sweet spot here with the federal government.

Q: What's your opinion of Boulder's exploration of a possible municipal electric utility -- in part on the basis that officials feel it could use more renewable energy sources than Xcel Energy -- and what role do you feel smaller, public utilities will play in America's energy future?

A: I salute the city of Boulder for having a very important conversation, and furthermore for the city of Boulder's efforts to reduce carbon emissions through its electricity use and the use of electricity on the part of its citizens.

Climate change is happening. We see it just this weekend when we look at another round of big fires that are threatening communities, and the welfare of our watersheds and our wildlife and our air quality.

We have to move to a lower carbon energy system.

The city of Boulder is a leader. I don't know what the right mix is of city-directed production of electricity versus working with the utility or the REA's that provide that energy for Boulder and Boulder County.

But the discussion is a very, very important one.

I led the charge to put in place the renewable electricity standard that we now have. Before Amendment 37 was even passed, when I was in the (Colorado) Legislature, I introduced the first renewable electricity standard in Colorado. It was a mere 10 percent by 2015. That was my goal.

We went to the ballot in 2004. I led that campaign with then-Speaker of the Statehouse Lois Bradley, Republican.

Voters passed it. If my memory is right, we had a goal of 15 percent by 2020. We quickly reached that goal. We now have one of the highest goals in the country at 30 percent by 2020.

We can reach that goal.

And here are the many upsides:

No.1: It will enhance our national security. I sit on the Armed Services Committee and I see every day the price of our dependence on foreign oil.

No. 2: The job creation potential here is huge. These technologies fit into the innovation agenda that our country ought to have.

And then third, we get environmental benefits that are significantly lower pollutants. We enhance water quality. There are a lot of benefits that are going to be generated by lower carbon fuel sources.

And then, of course, we keep faith with our children and their children when it comes to climate change.

This is doable, but we need communities like Boulder to step out. We need families and individuals to change their consumption habits and help make lower carbon technologies available.

Let me say one other thing on that -- and you can tell I'm getting fired up about it.

Having said that, we are in an all-of-the-above energy world, and I support an all-of-the-above energy strategy with an emphasis on lowering our carbon emissions in every way possible.

So how do you do that?

Well, you research coal technologies so you lower carbon emissions through capture and sequestration. You look at the natural gas reservoirs we have. Well, let's make sure there are no fugitive emissions. A methane molecule has the effect of 25 CO2 molecules. Let's take a look at energy efficiency technology that we can deploy in every way possible, from vehicles to homes to all the industrial processes that we have.

Lets put an RES (renewable energy standard) in place nationally for renewables so that we are producing power from the wind and the sun and from tides; from geothermal all over the country.

I'm going to have a bill that does that, that creates a renewable electricity standard like Colorado has.

So this is all part of a larger all-of-the-above strategy.

From my position on the energy committee, I push for this everyday.

Q: It's already been a devastating fire season in Colorado. What steps do you plan to take to help protect communities from the threat of wildfire?

A: I am going to continue to do the kind of work I've done, which has occurred on a lot of fronts.

No. 1: We need more money and resources to reduce fuels loads, particularly in the red zones. Particularly along the Front Range. That is where we've seen these big fires. Fourmile Canyon is an example of that situation.

No. 2: We need more private-public partnerships as a part of reducing those fuel loads through the good neighbor program and the stewardship contracting program, both of which I've championed.

Third: We need to be ready for wildfires. I've pushed really hard to get next-generation air tankers in place. (The) Forest Service was being slowed down by private sector contractors. We've pushed that through. We have the next-generation air tankers on order. I was actually inside of one last week -- on Friday, in Pueblo -- that was fighting the fire in the Black Forest, a big DC-10 that's been converted.

We're also going to get the Air Force to convert some of their C-130s and C-27Js -- which are the big, heavy-lift aircraft. Those are being re-purposed as we speak.

We need also to make sure that we're not robbing Peter to pay Paul. That we have enough money to do the fuel mitigation, but also to fight fires.

It's a lot cheaper to prevent a fire than it is to fight one.

And then finally, I -- on the back end, when it comes to rebuilding those communities and reclaiming those lands and stabilizing the soils -- I've got a bill that would put FEMA in the business of helping us both rebuild communities, but also -- and this is a circular scenario I just laid out -- FEMA then looking at ways in which to promote more fire-wise behavior in communities.

They're doing that with tornado-prone areas and hurricane-prone areas and areas that are prone to flooding. We ought to be doing the same thing in areas like our state where we are going to see more fires.

Unfortunately, this is the new normal, this kind of a June we're having. And it speaks again to our energy consumption and responding to climate change, because this is what the scientists predict right here in Boulder, this will begin to be more the norm. These drier cycles with more wind, less humidity are therefore more and more apt to have these devastating fires.

I would add, in an interesting way, this: We're going to pass the immigration bill out of the United States Senate next week, and, as I mentioned, I think it's important for many reasons. By the way, one of the reasons is it will help our economic growth to have a more secure labor market, and one in which people are eager to find work and playing less defense, particularly on the part of those employers who don't know if they hired legal workers and workers who are here who don't have the right papers. So you create more certainty in the labor market.

We're gonna get that done.

However, watching what happened in the United States House yesterday, or two days ago, when they couldn't pass a farm bill for the second year in a row, concerns me because I don't know that can pass an immigration bill, given what's going on in the House on the part of the majority. And they certainly haven't been able to pass a farm bill, and in that farm bill are some of the very measures I just mentioned to protect us from forest fires. Because the U.S. Department of Agriculture, of course, oversees the Forest Service.

So we have had money in that bill to reduce fuel loads, to provide more for firefighters, more in the way of air tankers, to have money for recovery efforts, emergency watershed protection monies. All of that, that's at risk if the House can't get its act together and pass a farm bill.

So it's interesting how you have a link here between immigration, the farm bill, wildfires. It's all part of what we're not doing in Washington, which is doing the people's business.

I can tell you the Senate -- contrary to what some people might say because of the debate about the filibuster, and what's happening in the Senate -- the Senate has been active on a lot of different fronts.

We need the House, and I'm not picking on individual House members, but we need the House to step up and pass immigration reform, pass a farm bill, pass a budget deal that will help the country move forward.

I'm worked up.

The other thing on talking about fires is we are gonna have fires. This is the new normal, and I will continue to spearhead after-action reviews. I headed one here after the Fourmile Canyon Fire. We learned a lot. We learned what homeowners can do.

By the way, homeowners can do a lot to reduce the potential of their house being burned.

We found that a rake and a weed whacker are the most important tools. People want to pull the rope on their chainsaw and go to work, but, actually, raking pine needles and knocking down the weeds and moving the wood pile and taking a look at where your propane tank is and maybe replacing those wood shingles with rock or slate shingles or asphalt shingles, was a smarter thing to do.

But I am going to continue those kind of after-action reviews. We did one after the terrible fire in Waldo Canyon last summer. We're learning. There are lessons that can be applied moving forward. Mother Nature has the ultimate say -- somebody said she bats last -- but we can keep the game going if we sit down with all the various entities that are involved, from volunteers to sheriffs to the Forest Service -- all the various groups -- and look at, "Hey, how can we be better prepared for our version of natural disasters here?"

Contact Camera Staff Writer Joe Rubino at 303-473-1328 or rubinoj@dailycamera.com. ___