There’s growing frustration among impatient environmentalists with Colorado Gov. Jared Polis’ climate leadership, saying the Democrat — who campaigned in 2018 on a promise to fully move the state to renewable energy by 2040 — needs to act faster and more aggressively.
And while Polis recently touted the progress of his roadmap to lower greenhouse gas emissions, the state’s own projections show Colorado is on pace to get only about halfway to its stated goals for the years 2025 and 2030.
When the state legislature returns to the Capitol next month, members of Polis’ party plan to introduce a broad package of climate bills that’s unprecedented in his tenure. Some proposed policies are meant to put the squeeze on him to force action on stronger regulations and emissions cuts.
The call for action comes as Colorado faces record heat, extreme drought, an ongoing water crisis and the three biggest wildfires in state history. Scientists say it’s all a product of climate change, and Dan Gibbs, director of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources, told The Denver Post in the fall that he fears 2020 was a preview of a “very troubling and, frankly, terrifying” future.
The 2019 state law that was supposed to establish Colorado’s strategy for long-term climate action has, in the eyes of many lawmakers and outside groups, led to little tangible progress. And the fundamental conflict at the Colorado Capitol, where all levels of government are controlled by Democrats, is whether to tackle this problem through complex and strict regulatory schemes, which requires more staffers than the state says it has and often leads to lawsuits, or through a hybrid system that’s heavy on incentives versus mandates.
Generally speaking, Polis has favored free-market solutions while environmentalists and some Democratic lawmakers believe tighter regulation will promote swifter and more effective action. Two environmentalist groups have also sued Polis, alleging that the state missed a 2020 deadline to propose emissions-cutting regulations (see article below).
“I think because it is so existential it is difficult to get the opposing parties to work with one another,” Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, said. “You have one group that is living in reality and another group that is thinking about our future. And they’re both well-intentioned.”
The latter group, as she defines it, is poised to directly challenge Polis in 2021.
What’s on tap in the statehouse
Sen. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat and former climate organizer, said she’s working on a bill that would, among other things, expand the enforcement authority of the state’s Air Quality Control Commission and give it more staff that’d be paid for by higher fees on polluters.
She is adamant that it won’t promote “cap and trade,” which is a policy to incentivize lower emissions while still letting companies that reach the cap to buy allowances to go over. The governor’s office is highly wary of any such proposal.
Winter said the point of her bill is to strengthen Polis’ roadmap, which environmental groups increasingly view as toothless.
“I’m working with them,” Winter said of the administration. “They’re not on board. … I’m hopeful we can get to a place where it’s not a full battle.”
In a statement provided to The Denver Post, Polis spokesman Conor Cahill said his office had not seen the bill — it’s still being drafted — but offered several reasons why Polis might oppose certain climate legislation to come.
“The Governor strongly supports the legislative work described in the Greenhouse Gas Roadmap plan. Other legislation would have to meet the objectives of the roadmap without diverting efforts, hurting the economy, or reducing the ability of the state to reach our aggressive clean energy goals,” Cahill said. He added that “racial equity and economic justice” are key to the governor’s climate priorities.
Interviews with about a dozen lawmakers indicate Winter’s bill will be one in a slew of proposals; others include reducing emissions in the transportation and building sectors; lowering tax rates to incentivize battery storage of solar and wind energy in a state where more than half of its electricity still comes from coal; plugging leaks of the powerful greenhouse gas methane at mines, landfills and agricultural facilities; and bolstering resources for the state Public Utilities Commission, which, like the Air Quality Control Commission, has been tasked by the legislature with a large workload but has limited resources to take it on.
Much of that legislation will likely pass, some with bipartisan support. It’s mandated change that gets much trickier, both with more moderate Democrats and with Polis.
His “bold, progressive” campaign rhetoric and his current actions, which are often at odds with leftist priorities, have frustrated many who fancy themselves bold progressives.
He was a champion for immigrant rights as a five-term member of Congress, then a moderate roadblock here to immigrant rights legislation in 2019. Progressive fiscal policy experts believe the state’s tax code is fundamentally inequitable, and Polis has stood apart from Democratic lawmakers by supporting an income tax cut they view as counterproductive.
But the legislature is also changing, with 17 more Democrats in the House than Republicans and a recently expanded majority (20-15) in the Senate. It’s also a more progressive governing body than in years past, and a growing number of Republicans are more open to acknowledging and acting on climate change, albeit strongly resistant to increased regulation of fossil fuel industries that contribute to warming.
“As much as I and every elected official out there would like to say we’re always standing true for the right thing, when voter attitudes shift and your district is looking at things differently — sometimes that gets your attention,” said GOP Sen. Dennis Hisey of Fountain, who is co-sponsoring the battery storage bill. “It took an evolution for me to get to where, yes, we do have a (climate) problem, and there is something we can do about it.”
Zenzinger said she prefers the governor’s approach of incentivizing change rather than forcing it. On the topic of climate change, she said, many simply aren’t willing to be patient or to trust the process.
She also said she worries about the trajectory of the legislature, now more hardline than at any point since she arrived in 2013.
“I think it’s the current mix of legislators that we have at the Capitol who feel very passionate and very justified in making these things happen, who tend to adopt this all-or-nothing attitude,” she said.
She is one of the more business-friendly Democrats, and business groups are keeping close watch on climate bills — and what they portend for job creation or losses. The Colorado Chamber of Commerce voiced concerns last week with Polis’ roadmap and called for “realistic, achievable and market-driven” solutions.
Conservation Colorado Executive Director Kelly Nordini said it’s time for that “bold climate leadership” Polis promised.
“They’ve spent 18 months on the roadmap,” she said. “OK, we have it now. It’s time to get on track.”
And AFL-CIO of Colorado Executive Director Dennis Dougherty told The Post his members, including 185 different unions, are willing to support upcoming climate legislation as long as it doesn’t harm workers.
“This session truly will be the testing ground for that,” he said. “Our hope is that, with these bills that are coming, that they help realize the vision of the roadmap, but also take care of workers in the communities in which they reside.”
That’s another lingering item on Colorado’s climate to-do list. In 2019, the legislature created an Office of Just Transition in 2019 to help workers employed in the fossil fuel industry. Two years later, it has not been funded at all. It’s expected to cost millions per year, and 2021 will likely be pivotal in determining just how serious the state is about putting resources behind it. Plus, President Joe Biden has pledged to focus on climate change, which includes transitioning to clean energy.
But in Colorado, Polis’ willingness to bend notwithstanding, it’s really up to the legislature to push for bold action, said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, the primary liaison between the governor’s office and the Senate Democratic caucus. “We need to remind ourselves that if we can’t get something done through the legislature because we don’t have the votes, then we can’t blame the governor’s office,” he said.
Polis administration faces second lawsuit over delayed climate regulations
Environmental groups say state regulators violated deadline for greenhouse gas rules
By Chase Woodruff -August 17, 2020
A second environmental group has filed a lawsuit against the state of Colorado over a landmark 2019 climate-change law, alleging that Gov. Jared Polis’ administration has flouted a key deadline for proposing new greenhouse-gas emissions rules.
The lawsuit, filed by the Environmental Defense Fund on Aug. 5 in Denver District Court, names the state’s Air Quality Control Commission, a body of volunteer commissioners appointed by the governor, and the Air Pollution Control Division, a branch of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, as defendants.
Like a similar suit filed last month by a separate group, WildEarth Guardians, EDF’s complaint claims that regulators violated state law by failing to propose a comprehensive set of greenhouse-gas rules before a July 1 deadline.
“EDF seeks an Order from the court that compels the Commission and the APCD to initiate such rulemaking forthwith,” the complaint states.
EDF’s lawsuit — filed without fanfare on the last day of a 35-day judicial review period following the AQCC’s failure to propose the greenhouse-gas rules on July 1 — is perhaps the most significant escalation yet in what has become a quiet but tense conflict between environmentalists and the Polis administration over the direction of state climate policy.
Hopes were high when Polis, who campaigned on a promise of 100% renewable energy by 2040, won a sweeping electoral victory in 2018. But nearly two years later, a wide range of environmental groups has grown increasingly disappointed with the slow pace at which regulators are proceeding.
In a statement, Polis spokesperson Conor Cahill defended the administration’s approach, which has often relied heavily on market-based policies and voluntary commitments from the private sector.
“This administration has taken historic action to advance renewable energy and address the climate crisis,” Cahill said. “We are getting this done the Colorado way by working on smart strategies that lower emissions while strengthening our economy.”
July 1 deadline
The escalating conflict between Polis and advocates of stronger climate action centers on two pieces of climate legislation passed by Democrats in the Colorado General Assembly in 2019. The first, House Bill 19-1261, codified a series of emissions targets for the state to achieve through 2050. The second, Senate Bill 19-096, strengthened reporting requirements and directed the AQCC to propose “measures that would cost-effectively allow the state to meet its greenhouse gas emission reduction goals” by July 1, 2020.
Polis opposed strict mandates on polluters in early drafts of HB-1261, clashing with House Speaker KC Becker over the issue, according to a report from the Colorado Independent. Ultimately, the bill eschewed mandates in favor of softer language stating that Colorado “shall strive … to eliminate statewide greenhouse gas pollution” and set “goals” for the AQCC and other rulemaking bodies to achieve, including a 50% reduction by 2030 and a 90% reduction by 2050.
In the months following HB-1261’s passage, environmental groups expected the AQCC’s first major greenhouse-gas rulemaking to begin before the July 1 deadline, and as recently as the commission’s November 2019 meeting, APCD staff presented commissioners with a tentative rulemaking timeline that included a lengthy “GHG Reduction Rulemaking” scheduled between May and September 2020.
But regulators later changed course, ultimately proposing a narrow rule change relating to hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a minor class of greenhouse gases commonly used in refrigerators and air conditioners. That followed the commission’s enactment of a Zero Emission Vehicle rule, which required automakers to sell more electric cars within the state, and a set of regulations on oil and gas emissions required by Senate Bill 19-181.
Those three regulatory changes are the only actions the AQCC has taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions since the passage of HB-1261 — and EDF’s lawsuit, pointing to the state’s own data, says that they’re not nearly enough to meet the new statutory goals. Combined, the three new rules add up to only an estimated 1.6 million tons of annual emissions reductions by 2030 — a tiny fraction of the 64.7 million tons the state needs to cut from its annual emissions to meet its goals.
“The Commission and APCD have not, and could not, satisfy their obligation to meet the state’s GHG reduction goals through the promulgation of the ZEV, oil and gas, and HFC regulations alone,” the lawsuit says. “By Defendants’ own admissions, and assuming full compliance, the (rules) will only meet approximately 2.7% of the state’s 2030 GHG reduction goal.”
The Polis administration maintains that it wasn’t necessary to propose further rules before July 1 in order to meet HB-1261’s goals. The AQCC is currently planning to enact two major sets of greenhouse gas rules — one regulating transportation emissions and another relating to building energy use — in the second half of 2021.
“We are confident we are fully in compliance with both laws,” said Andrew Bare, a spokesperson for the APCD. “We will continue to pursue effective, scientifically supported policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address climate change.”
“Colorado has fully complied with the requirement in SB 19-096 to propose rulemakings that would be necessary to meet the HB 19-1261 goals and is operating under a real-world budget situation,” Cahill said.
An EDF representative was not available for an interview. Based in New York City and boasting a staff of over 700, the group is widely viewed as a moderate voice in environmental policy circles, and has faced criticism from more progressive groups, including for its support for fracking. The group’s Rocky Mountain regional director, Dan Grossman, is slated to appear this week on a panel at the Colorado Oil and Gas Association’s annual summit, representing “pragmatic stakeholders on the other side of the issue.”
AQCC commissioners will continue to deliberate on future climate measures at a “GHG Strategy Subcommitee” meeting on Aug. 18. Additional clarity on the Polis administration’s climate policies is expected with the release of an emissions “roadmap” slated to be completed by the Colorado Energy Office in September.
On Aug. 12, state officials held a listening session to gather feedback from the public and key stakeholders on the roadmap process. Many local officeholders, including several whose communities are currently being impacted by major drought-intensified wildfires, spoke during a public comment session and urged state leadership to move forward more aggressively on climate regulation.
“We are behind,” George Marlin, a Clear Creek County commissioner and a board member at Colorado Communities for Climate Action, told officials. “I’m asking the AQCC to redouble its efforts and find ways to move more quickly on these rulemakings.”