Fight Against Climate Change Heating Up as Colorado Faces Aridification and Steep Declines in Cost of Renewable Energy

Gov Polis told our government that it’s time to get to work, calling on the Department of Transportation and other agencies to repair and electrify our dirty transportation system.  Polis’ push couldn’t come at a better time. For the past few months the wind has been at the back of the Colorado environmental movement. There’s been so much promising Colorado news on the fight against climate change.

  • In July 2018, Denver released its plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent over the next 30 years.

  • Denver and many other communities have also committed to 100% renewable electricity by 2030.

  • In November 2018, the state’s Air Quality Control Commission voted to adopt vehicle emission standards, which will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from Colorado’s transportation sector.

  • Platte River Power Authority committed to get to 100% renewable energy by 2030.  In December, 2018 Xcel finally committed to 100% carbon- free energy by 2050.

And a Request for Indicative Pricing in last quarter found that without a protected monopoly (Xcel) or with “right of choice” cities could get:

  • 89% Renewable Energy (2024) at about 2/3 the Cost of Power from Xcel!
  • 100 % Renewable Energy (2030) at about ¾ the Cost of Power from Xcel!

PRPA – Northern Colorado already offers electricity 25% cheaper than Xcel (they are not extracting profits to send out of state).  We can clean up our electricity faster with the ability of Colorado cities, businesses, utilities, co-ops have the right of choice with their electricity; e.g., access to wholesale electricity on an open market.  This is the #1 item listed by PRPA that they need to reach their goal of 100% RE by 2030. See

A report released last year by the Clean Energy States Alliance found that fourteen states now include clean-heating technology in their renewable portfolio standards, the regulatory tool by which most states mandate certain levels of green energy production. Colorado isn’t one of them. That needs to change, Meillon says, adding that the state also needs to push the Public Utilities Commission, the agency that oversees much of Colorado’s energy infrastructure, to incentivize clean and efficient heating alongside electricity. The PUC is up for a periodic sunset review in the legislature this session, giving lawmakers the opportunity to ensure such reforms are enacted.

  • Twitter thread of efficiency resources
  • ACEEESnapshot of Energy Efficiency Performance Incentives for Electric Utilities. Performance incentive mechanisms (PIMs) can help make energy efficiency competitive with traditional utility infrastructure investments. This brief surveys current state approaches to PIMs and highlights two emerging trends in incentive design: multifactor incentives, and the growing use of return on equity and innovative cost recovery mechanisms. For the former we profile programs in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Hawaii, Michigan, and New York; for the latter, Maryland, New Jersey, Utah, and Illinois.
  • Nexant: The Need for a Holistic Electrification Strategy.  Electrification offers utilities and their constituents a whole host of potential benefits, including greenhouse gas reduction, distribution optimization, load smoothing, new revenue streams, and potentially lower energy bills for end users.  But if we approach electrification initiatives in a piecemeal fashion, rather than as a holistic, integrated strategy, we’re likely to end up with a hot mess.
  • GTM: Electric Heating Accelerates the Push for Deep Decarbonization, but Cost Remains an Issue
  • GTM: Electric Heat Pumps Can Slash Heating Emissions by More Than Half in California Homes
  • Strategen Consulting: Is the “Duck Curve” Eroding the Value of Energy Efficiency?

Meanwhile, Colorado has over 17,000 leaking gas wells still, as of 2017, according to state data, and even small amounts of methane can be devastating for the climate. A major study published last year in the journal Science estimated the industry’s leak rate at 2.3 percent, enough to offset most of the oft-touted climate benefits of natural gas compared to coal.

Often lost in the debate over future climate impacts is the fact that Colorado has already warmed significantly over the last thirty years; average temperatures statewide have risen by more than 2ºF, outpacing the global average. This warming, scientists say, is the primary culprit behind declining stream flows in the Colorado River Basin, the water source for nearly 40 million people across the Southwest. In a 2018 paper, scientists at the Colorado River Research Group advised against using the term “drought” to describe what is happening in Colorado and other Western states. “Drought” implies a temporary condition. A better word for what we’re experiencing is “aridification.”

“Moving forward means abandoning the mindset that current changes to climatic and hydrologic regimes are a temporary phenomenon,” the paper says. “We are not likely to ever return to normal conditions; that opportunity has passed.” Our choice now, the authors write, is between stabilizing water supplies at a lower but still sustainable level, or watching as the aridification process continues and likely accelerates: “Words such as drought and normal no longer serve us well, as we are no longer in a waiting game; we are now in a period that demands continued, decisive action on many fronts.”

Colorado Joining California in Mandating Electric-Vehicle Sales

Colorado moved to boost electric-car sales by taking the first step toward adopting a zero-emission-vehicle mandate patterned after one in California that’s under threat from the Trump administration.

Democratic Governor Jared Polis signed an executive order directing Colorado environmental officials to propose the zero-emission-vehicle rule by no later than May 2019 to the state’s Air Quality Control Commission.

The mandate would make Colorado the 10th state to join California’s electric-car posse that’s enacted rules requiring automakers to sell more electric cars each year. California regulators estimate the program will lead to pure-electric and plug-in hybrid cars accounting for 8 percent of auto sales in the state by 2025.

“As we continue to move towards a cleaner electric grid, the public-health and environmental benefits of widespread transportation electrification will only increase,” Polis said in a statement.

The nine other predominantly Democratic-leaning states include New York, Massachusetts and Oregon. They have established similar electric-car requirements by using a provision of the U.S. Clean Air Act that allows states to adopt rules California developed, which Polis’ executive order cited. The act gives California the authority to set rules more stringent than federal standards.

This group and other states are positioning themselves as a bulwark against the Trump administration’s push to ease cleaner-vehicle rules. Federal regulators have proposed capping national fuel-economy and carbon-emissions requirements for new autos at a 37 mile-per-gallon fleet average after 2020. Standards set by the Obama administration would’ve increased the average to 47 mpg by 2025.

As part of the plan, the Trump administration also proposed stripping California of its zero-emission-vehicle mandate.

Polis also directed state officials to reallocate some of the almost $70 million earmarked to the state from Volkswagen AG’s emissions-cheating settlement to support additional electrified transit buses, school buses and trucks, according to the order.


By CHASE WOODRUFF, Westword, JANUARY 2, 2019

As Colorado Democrats hit the campaign trail last summer, farmers and ranchers across the state were experiencing some of the worst drought conditions in recorded history. Streams ran dry. Reservoirs emptied early.

On election night, while Governor-elect Jared Polis and others celebrated the party’s historic wins at the Denver Westin, thousands of Floridians left homeless by Hurricane Michael were still sleeping in tents and shelters. Two days later, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in modern American history ignited near Paradise, California.

And as triumphant Democrats spent the holiday season anticipating their tightest grip on the reins of state government in eighty years, the world’s scientists were delivering an increasingly urgent series of warnings about the consequences of failing to address the global climate crisis. “We’re out of time,” says Mike MacFerrin, a University of Colorado Boulder glaciologist and climate activist. “The time for half-measures is over. We’re at an inflection point, globally. People are starting to feel the impacts. It’s no longer abstract; it’s no longer confined to a computer model.”

Swept into power by the blue wave, Colorado Democrats are quick to draw a contrast between themselves and Republicans on the issue of climate change. They say that they accept what scientists have been telling the world for over thirty years: Human activity is releasing unsustainable quantities of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, causing our planet to warm to the point of widespread ecological upheaval and collapse. They say they’re ready to act to stop it.

“There’s nothing less at stake than our future itself,” Polis told a gathering of Colorado Sierra Club members last year. “You may not like politics. You may think it’s just a bunch of people arguing all the time. You may not trust any of them. But at the end of the day, there is too much at stake to ignore it. The outcome of our elections will determine the outcome for our planet.”

The outcome of November’s election was unambiguous: Polis defeated GOP rival Walker Stapleton by nearly eleven points, as Democrats booted Republicans from three other statewide offices and gained full control of the Colorado Legislature for the first time in four years. As for the planet, however, it remains to be seen whether Polis and other top Democrats have grasped the full implications of the international scientific community’s warnings — its conclusion, for instance, that in order to avoid catastrophic levels of warming, Colorado and the world at large must cut carbon emissions nearly in half by 2030.

In conversations with more than a dozen scientists, activists, lawmakers, state regulators and others, a clear picture emerges: Despite encouraging developments on several fronts, there remains a significant gap between the policy agenda that Democrats have put forward in this state and the scale and urgency of action that the climate crisis requires. Like much of the rest of the world, Colorado is nowhere near on track to achieve the overall emissions cuts that scientists say are necessary over the next decade and beyond. And every day that passes without action only makes the task ahead that much more difficult.

Experts stress that the barriers to rapid decarbonization are not technological, as nearly all of the technologies needed to make a carbon-zero world possible already exist. Nor are they economic, as the costs of doing nothing far outweigh the costs of effective mitigation. If the world fails to do what’s necessary to stop climate change, the failure will be political. Democrats have promised that they won’t fail in Colorado; now comes the hard work of fulfilling that promise.

“We still have a ways to go,” says Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director at the environmental group WildEarth Guardians. “We have some work to do, for sure. But the winds have changed here in Colorado, and they’re definitely going to be felt, not only by our neighbors, but other states beyond, and I think it’s going to reach all the way to D.C. People are excited right now, and they’re rising up. They’re realizing we really have no choice.”

Global Alarm Bells

“Rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”

That’s what the world’s top climate authority says is necessary to limit warming to an average global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Exceeding that limit, warned the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in October, will put hundreds of millions of people around the world at greater risk of famine, disease, extreme poverty and forced migration.

Beyond 2ºC of warming, the chances of widespread ecological devastation and human suffering begin to increase exponentially. Entire regions of the world would be remade by droughts, floods, heat waves and rising sea levels. Mass displacement, economic depression and political destabilization, the IPCC’s report warns, would create a world that “is no longer recognizable.”

Current projections show that the climate is on track to blow through both limits and warm by more than 3ºC by 2100.

The IPCC’s findings were echoed a month later by the Fourth National Climate Assessment, a congressionally mandated report prepared by thirteen U.S. government agencies. In virtually every corner of the country, the assessment found, Americans are already starting to feel the effects of climate change — including in Colorado and the rest of the West, where the risks of severe drought and wildfires are steadily increasing owing to warmer temperatures.

Despite these warnings, the Republican-led federal government has spent the past two years reversing what little climate progress had been made at the national and international levels. President Donald Trump’s administration has slashed clean-air protections, suppressed the work of its own scientists and opened up millions of acres of public lands in the West for new drilling. Later this year, it will complete its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, the landmark decarbonization treaty signed by nearly 200 countries in 2015.

This backsliding by the world’s second-largest carbon polluter is, in part, what led the U.N. Environment Program to stress the importance of state-level climate mitigation in a report it issued in November. “More actors must engage in climate action,” said the program’s annual Emissions Gap Report. Subnational actors like state and city governments, it argued, “can play a key role in building government confidence in implementing climate policies, and they can signal and push for greater ambition.”

State representative Chris Hansen, an energy consultant who represents east Denver in the legislature, agrees. “States are going to have to lead, because of the abdication in D.C. by the Trump administration,” he says. “Colorado has been a leader, but I think we’ve fallen behind, in some ways, from that leadership position that we held for many years. It’s time for us to be more assertive on climate change and clean-energy policy.”

In 2017, Colorado became one of sixteen states to join the U.S. Climate Alliance, whose members have committed to meeting the emissions goals outlined in the Paris Agreement. In pursuit of those goals, Governor John Hickenlooper signed an executive order mandating a 26 percent cut to statewide carbon emissions by 2025. Establishing a more ambitious target is likely to be a priority for Colorado climate activists this year. The country’s most aggressive state-level emissions mandate was passed by California’s legislature in 2017; it requires an economy-wide emissions cut of 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, roughly in line with what the IPCC says is necessary to avoid 1.5°C of warming.

But top-down emissions mandates merely set goals; it takes focused policy intervention to meet those goals. The world’s leading climate scientists aren’t shy or equivocal about what those policies have to accomplish: “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” The question is whether political leaders around the globe are willing to do what’s necessary to make those changes.

“There are very real manifestations of the climate crisis happening now that are impacting people in real ways,” says Taylor McKinnon, a climate activist with the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity. “So I think that lends urgency to action by the Polis administration. What we have right now are campaign promises that need to be translated into real policy action.”

It’s impossible to precisely measure the vast quantities of invisible, heat-trapping gases that are, at any given moment, being released into the atmosphere by Colorado’s cars, power plants, furnaces, factories and feedlots. But scientific models give us a pretty good idea.

The state’s most recent Greenhouse Gas Inventory, issued in 2014 by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, estimated that the state emitted 130 million CO2-equivalent tons of greenhouse gases in 2010, and projected that total to rise slightly, to 134 million tons, by 2020. (According to the CDPHE, an updated report is expected to be completed in the first half of 2019.)

That means that in order to do its part to avoid global catastrophe, Colorado has just eleven years to eliminate roughly 60 million CO2-equivalent tons from its current annual emission levels. To put the scale of that challenge in perspective, the state’s newly approved low emissions vehicle standards — hailed by Democrats as a major victory and assailed by Republicans as an intolerable overreach — will reduce emissions by just 2 million tons annually by 2030, according to CDPHE estimates.

Where will the other 58 million tons of cuts come from? That’s the question that Polis and Democrats in the legislature will soon have to answer if they want to make good on their promises to take climate change seriously. Polis made green energy goals a centerpiece of his gubernatorial campaign, pledging to put Colorado on a path toward 100 percent renewable electricity by 2040.

Such a goal looks achievable: With wind and solar power cheaper than ever, energy providers are ramping up efforts to retire old, heavy-emitting coal plants and investing aggressively in renewables to replace them. Xcel Energy, Colorado’s largest electric utility, announced in December that it plans to reduce emissions from electricity generation by 80 percent by 2030 and achieve 100 percent carbon-zero electricity by 2050.

“There is a difference between clean energy and clean electricity.”

Appearing alongside Xcel executives at a press conference announcing the pledge, Polis vowed to support policies that would accelerate the transition and encourage other utilities to follow suit. That could be accomplished, in part, by “making it easier to site renewable-energy projects on public land [and] working for a pathway for rural electric co-ops to be able to embrace renewable energy,” he said.

The Platte River Power Authority, which provides electricity to Fort Collins, Loveland, Longmont and Estes Park, one-upped Xcel with its own pledge to achieve 100 percent carbon-zero electricity by 2030.

As positive as these developments may be, however, electricity generation accounts for only 31 percent of Colorado’s annual carbon emissions, according to the CDPHE’s 2014 report. Even if other electric utilities follow Xcel’s lead and achieve a sector-wide 80 percent emissions cut by 2030 — which seems far from likely, given the coal-heavy portfolios of smaller providers like Westminster-based Tri-State — the carbon savings would amount to roughly 32 million tons. That would leave another 26 million tons in cuts that still need to be made elsewhere.

Most of those cuts will have to come from some of the most overlooked areas of climate and energy policy — and some of the least politically palatable. Experts worry that even as momentum builds for popular, well-understood goals like 100 percent renewable electric power, other, major sources of emissions are at risk of being ignored.


CDPHE Greenhouse Gas Inventory – 2014 Update

“There is a lot of public confusion about clean energy,” says Laurent Meillon, CEO of Castle Rock-based Capitol Solar Energy and a renewable-energy advocate. “There is a difference between clean energy and clean electricity.”

Over 20 percent of Colorado’s carbon emissions come from building fuel use: furnaces, boilers, water heaters, ovens, stoves and more, the vast majority of which are powered by natural gas. At roughly 27 million tons annually, buildings are Colorado’s third-largest source of emissions, after electricity generation and transportation. Despite this enormous carbon footprint, however, building emissions have been the object of far less attention, and far less regulatory and legislative scrutiny, than the electric and transportation sectors.

The technology exists to achieve deep cuts in emissions from building fuel use over the next decade, experts say. Buildings can be constructed or retrofitted to be more energy-efficient; gas-powered heating systems can be electrified or converted to use clean-heating technologies like solar thermal. But public policy to mandate or incentivize such a transition has lagged far behind other green-energy programs.

“Ninety-nine percent of the focus is on electric energy,” Meillon says. “There’s been a dearth of planning or programs on sustainable heating in Colorado.”

A report released last year by the Clean Energy States Alliance found that fourteen states now include clean-heating technology in their renewable portfolio standards, the regulatory tool by which most states mandate certain levels of green energy production. Colorado isn’t one of them. That needs to change, Meillon says, adding that the state also needs to push the Public Utilities Commission, the agency that oversees much of Colorado’s energy infrastructure, to incentivize clean and efficient heating alongside electricity. The PUC is up for a periodic sunset review in the legislature this session, giving lawmakers the opportunity to ensure such reforms are enacted.

“Part of it is really being aggressive on the efficiency side so you burn less in the first place,” says Hansen. “But long-term, it’s going to take a massive reinvestment in the heating sector. That’s going to have to be part of our overall strategy. It’s not enough just to look at electricity and transport; we have to push electrification into the heating sector as well.”

Hansen, an Oxford Ph.D. who wrote his dissertation on electricity reform in India, views the heating sector as perhaps the most difficult source of carbon emissions to tackle. “You’re talking about a huge capital reinvestment,” he explains. “If you add up the value of everybody’s furnaces, and the systems that we have in place in our homes, in our offices, in our apartments — it’s multiple trillions of dollars across the U.S.”

The Colorado Electric Vehicle Plan wants to get electric cars on the road.

The Road to Electrification

Over 30 million tons of carbon dioxide are emitted annually by Colorado’s cars, trucks, aircraft and other fossil-fuel-powered vehicles, and estimates show that figure inching steadily upward amid a population boom and a growing economy. The chances of making deep cuts into those emissions over the next decade appear slim.

In the long run, the best way to cut transportation emissions is through a mass transition to electric vehicles (EVs) and transit networks, particularly as the energy powering the electric grid becomes cleaner and cleaner. But a variety of factors are holding that transition back. “Lack of infrastructure is clearly one of the biggest barriers,” says Christian Williss, director of transportation fuels and technology at the Colorado Energy Office. “Focusing our efforts on expanding infrastructure and charging options across the state are critical.”

Though costs are falling fast, a lack of affordability has also hindered EV adoption — as has a simple lack of public awareness. “The majority of people don’t really know that EVs are out there,” he says. “We see a desperate need for education and awareness — things like ride-and-drives, educating salespeople, making sure that EVs are kept on dealer lots, and doing actual marketing around electric vehicles. We simply don’t see a lot of investment in marketing, TV ads, that sort of thing.”

The Colorado Electric Vehicle Plan, released by Hickenlooper’s administration last year, commits the state to a goal of 940,000 electric cars on the road by 2030, or about 15 percent of all passenger vehicles in the state. Even in this “maximum practical scenario” for EV adoption, however, the carbon savings are projected to be modest: only about 3 million tons of emissions annually, according to the report.

EXPAND CDPHE, DDPHE, Colorado Electric Vehicle Plan, U.S. Energy Information Administration

Colorado could decide to follow the lead of California and nine other states in adopting a zero-emissions vehicle mandate, requiring automakers to sell a certain number of electric vehicles as a percentage of their overall sales within the state. Regulators will decide whether to move forward with the ZEV rule in May.

Hansen thinks it’s time for lawmakers to act more aggressively on electric vehicles, too. “I think you’re going to see a lot of conversation this session on how to hasten the pace of electrification in transportation,” he says. “I think it’s incumbent on the legislature to put in place the right incentives for EVs, as well as to build out and support the charging infrastructure.”

Without rapid, mass electrification, significant emissions cuts in the transportation sector could be made simply by changing how Coloradans get around — in short, by encouraging fewer people to drive cars. But broad swaths of public policy in Colorado seem to be doing just the opposite. Denver’s four-year, $1.2 billion expansion of Interstate 70, championed by Hickenlooper and Mayor Michael Hancock, could ultimately raise drivership rates, which are already significantly higher than the city wants them to be. Denver’s Office of Sustainability has aimed for less than 60 percent of all commutes to be made in single-occupant vehicles by the end of 2020, with a goal of 50 percent by 2030 — but over the past five years, that figure has barely budged from around 70 percent.

But if progress on transportation and buildings seems slow or stalled, there’s one sector in which climate activists say Colorado is moving backwards.

EXPAND Oil and gas drilling has increased in Colorado over the past eight years. Anthony Camera

Demand and Supply

Colorado’s multibillion-dollar oil and gas industry, the fourth-largest source of greenhouse emissions, packs a one-two climate-warming punch. Its drill sites, wells, tanks and pipelines are themselves major, direct emitters of hydrocarbons like methane. And the extracted fossil fuels, of course, are sent downstream in the supply chain to be burned in Colorado or elsewhere and released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

Exactly how much methane leaks out during oil and gas production is a matter of considerable debate. In 2014, Colorado enacted a set of rules requiring operators to find and fix leaks on a more regular basis. But those leaks still numbered over 17,000 in 2017, according to state data, and even small amounts of methane can be devastating for the climate. A major study published last year in the journal Science estimated the industry’s leak rate at 2.3 percent, enough to offset most of the oft-touted climate benefits of natural gas compared to coal.

In any case, the indirect effects of pumping massive quantities of fossil fuels into the nation’s energy markets are beyond doubt. As a matter of simple thermodynamics, there is no possible future in which climate change is successfully mitigated and Colorado’s oil and gas industry is still producing at anywhere close to its current levels. That’s a reality with which the state’s political establishment, Republican and Democrat alike, has had trouble coming to terms.

“The industry has become so entrenched in state politics, on both sides of the aisle,” says Nichols. “The Democratic Party has struggled to address it, and instead has been willing to just go along with it because of how much power they exert within the party.”

Higher efficiency standards, incentives for wind and solar power, and electric vehicle adoption all seek to reduce demand for oil, gas and coal. To date, these demand-side policies have accounted for the vast majority of climate action by governments in the U.S. and around the world. In the view of many activists, this means policymakers are trying to tackle climate change with one arm tied behind their backs.

“Supply side is the next frontier of climate policy,” says McKinnon. “Regulating tailpipes and smokestacks isn’t enough.”

Studies have shown that the planet’s “proved” fossil-fuel reserves — that is, the oil and gas waiting to be extracted in fields that have already been developed — are already more than enough to push the climate past the 2°C warming limit, if they are extracted and burned. Yet Colorado is approving thousands of new wells every year, with record numbers of drilling permits waiting to be rubber-stamped by state regulators. On average, Colorado drillers are pumping a staggering five times more oil per month than they were when Hickenlooper took office eight years ago.

“Phasing out new drilling and leasing is a key part of any serious climate platform moving forward,” McKinnon says. “New leasing and drilling needs to end. It should have ended years ago.”

Outdoing Governor John Hickenlooper, a former geologist.

The math is inexorable; even Hickenlooper, a geologist who’s been a staunch industry ally, conceded in a 2017 interview with Colorado Public Radio that fossil fuels will “at some point” have to be left in the ground (but not during his administration — the challenge was kicked down the road to younger folks). Polis spokeswoman Mara Sheldon declines to discuss any plan Polis might introduce as governor until after his policy team is in place; in the meantime, she points to statements on climate change on his House website. “Simply put,” it says, “Colorado has a vested stake in the health of our world’s climate.”

Activists are hopeful that the Polis administration could begin to slow the runaway growth of drilling along the Front Range, both by supporting strengthened protections in the legislature and by appointing stronger climate and environmental advocates to state agencies. But that will mean taking on an industry with deep pockets and enormous influence within Colorado’s halls of power. “Constraining and phasing out fossil-fuel supply ultimately puts [politicians] in the crosshairs of a very powerful oil and gas lobby,” says McKinnon. “Climate leadership requires taking the side of the climate’s future instead of that lobby. We’ve not seen that done in the past, and that needs to be done now.”

For organizers and activists who helped deliver big wins for Polis and other Democrats in November, addressing climate change and the environmental effects of oil and gas drilling is a top priority. According to Katie Farnan of Indivisible Front Range Resistance, many of her fellow activists in Broomfield, Thornton and other communities that have been directly impacted by fracking are ready to see the new governor and the legislature confront those issues aggressively.

“We’re looking for leaders who are going to take bold action,” Farnan says. “We can’t just have half-measures, and we can’t just have commitments that look out into the future, to 2030, 2040, 2060. That’s not going to work. It needs to be a shortened timeline.”

See Lake Powell in 2002 and 2003.John C. Dohrenwend /

“Continued, Decisive Action on Many Fronts”

Often lost in the debate over future climate impacts is the fact that Colorado has already warmed significantly over the last thirty years; average temperatures statewide have risen by more than 2ºF, outpacing the global average. This warming, scientists say, is the primary culprit behind declining stream flows in the Colorado River Basin, the water source for nearly 40 million people across the Southwest. In a 2018 paper, scientists at the Colorado River Research Group advised against using the term “drought” to describe what is happening in Colorado and other Western states. “Drought” implies a temporary condition. A better word for what we’re experiencing is “aridification.”

“Moving forward means abandoning the mindset that current changes to climatic and hydrologic regimes are a temporary phenomenon,” the paper says. “We are not likely to ever return to normal conditions; that opportunity has passed.” Our choice now, the authors write, is between stabilizing water supplies at a lower but still sustainable level, or watching as the aridification process continues and likely accelerates: “Words such as drought and normal no longer serve us well, as we are no longer in a waiting game; we are now in a period that demands continued, decisive action on many fronts.”

These dramatic atmospheric and ecological shifts are happening all around the world. Unfortunately, says CU’s MacFerrin, whose research focuses on the Greenland ice sheet, these are exciting times to be a glaciologist. “There are a lot of things that we’re realizing ice sheets can do very quickly,” he explains. “We go to Greenland, and I see these changes on vast, continental scales. You look around and you’re like, ‘Holy shit, this is big.’ But I can’t absorb that all the time. I would be a depressed mess all the time if I just did nothing but think about the consequences of it.”

There are signs that the warnings scientists have been issuing for the past three decades are finally starting to sink in with policymakers. At the federal level, a surge in climate activism has led to protests and sit-ins in the halls of Congress as Democrats prepare to take control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 2010. Led by youth activist group the Sunrise Movement and newly elected progressives such as Colorado’s own Joe Neguse, the push for a “Green New Deal,” a program to massively expand federal investment in decarbonization and green jobs, has picked up endorsements from influential Democrats and several likely 2020 presidential nominees.

“We are not likely to ever return to normal conditions; that opportunity has passed.”

As Polis and the legislature’s new Democratic majority prepare to be sworn in, Colorado activists hope to bring that movement to the steps of the Capitol. But for now, a 100 percent renewable electric grid by 2040 is the only major decarbonization goal that the governor-elect has endorsed. (Citing ongoing work by the transition’s policy committees, the incoming Polis administration declined to comment on specific plans for reducing emissions from other sectors.)

Chris Hansen is hopeful that Colorado and the world can achieve the required levels of decarbonization over the next decade and beyond. This session, he plans to introduce bills to accelerate the retirement of old coal plants and further encourage community solar projects. At a certain point, he says, the growth of transformational clean-energy technologies will become exponential.

“It’s an aggressive goal, to get a 45 percent reduction by 2030,” Hansen acknowledges. “But I think it’s very feasible, based on current technology and near-term technology that we know is in the pipeline. It’s not a linear change. We’re going to see a very rapid increase in electric vehicles, for example.

“Just like wind and solar accelerated as they became cheaper alternatives to natural gas and coal,” he adds, “I think something similar is going to happen in the transport sector, as these technologies improve and costs continue to fall. We’re kind of at that take-off moment.”

Other activists are looking to the near future with a mix of hopefulness, skepticism and resolve. The green movement has seen false dawns before. But with the effects of a rapidly changing climate already being felt as carbon emissions continue to rise, the stakes have never been higher.

“Politicians tend to target short-term things that the electorate can see and benefit from so they can get re-elected,” Meillon points out. “We’re dealing with a long-term and global problem, and that often does not bode well with our institutions and the way people think. I think there’s a lack of political will — but nonetheless, it’s increasing.”

“We’re starting out with a rosy picture, because we elected a lot of great people,” says Farnan. “But these things can go south, and we’re not going to let that happen.”

Farnan and other Indivisible activists are planning to hold monthly lobbying days at the Capitol, pressuring lawmakers to act on climate, renewable energy and other issues. They’ve been energized by the efforts of the Sunrise Movement and other climate activists in Washington. Carrying that energy forward may make all the difference, for Colorado and for the world.

“I’m hoping that voters stay involved and make them follow through on their promises,” MacFerrin says. “Because that’s been one of the Democratic Party’s big downfalls. They pay lip service, but if they come up against any opposition, it becomes a back-burner issue that doesn’t really get handled; it’s just kicking the can down the line, again and again and again. And we’re out of time.”

Chase Woodruff is a freelance writer based in Denver, covering climate change, the environment and money in politics.

By Karen Savage, Climate Liability News, Jan 2019

Two public relations strategists representing Exxon recently posed as journalists in an attempt to interview an attorney representing Colorado communities that are suing Exxon for climate change-related damages.

The strategists—Michael Sandoval and Matt Dempsey—are employed by FTI Consulting, a firm long linked with the oil and gas industry. They did not deny they represent Exxon. The duo are listed as writers for Western Wire, a website by the Western Energy Alliance, a regional oil and gas association that includes Exxon as a member and an Exxon executive sits on its board.

Their call to Marco Simons, general counsel for EarthRights International, who represents the city and county of Boulder and the County of San Miguel in a lawsuit the communities filed last year seeking climate damages from Exxon, potentially runs afoul of ethics rules for both the legal and public relations industries, and appeared to be a fishing expedition for information about Simons’ clients in that suit.

On the call to Simons, which was recorded and released by EarthRights, the two men pressed for an interview even though Simons quickly said he couldn’t talk to them if they represented Exxon in any way. When they evaded the question, Simons refused to comment.

Western Wire, which bills itself as the “go-to source for news, commentary and analysis on pro-growth, pro-development policies across the West,” is staffed with strategists from FTI Consulting, a public relations firm that also provides staff to Energy In Depth, a pro-fossil fuel “research, education and public outreach campaign” and a project of the Independent Petroleum Association of America. It was founded in 2009 with funding from XTO Energy, which is now an Exxon subsidiary. 

Sandoval, Western Wire’s managing editor and a director at FTI, initiated the phone call to Simons. When asked, Sandoval confirmed that Western Wire is a project of Western Energy Alliance, a regional oil and gas association, and that it’s staffed “primarily by staff of FTI Consulting.” 

Exxon is listed as an FTI client in the firm’s 2018 annual update to the European Union’s transparency register, a database of lobbying organizations that try to influence law-making and policy in EU institutions.

Sandoval also confirmed that FTI Consulting is under contract to the Western Energy Alliance.

Simons then asked if Exxon is a Western Energy Alliance member.

“I’m not privy to the membership of, of the Western Energy Alliance,” Sandoval said.

“OK, well it does include an executive from Exxon on its board, right?” said Simon, referring to Greg Pulliam , a public and government affairs manager for XTO Energy and longtime Exxon employee.

“Yes,” Sandoval said.

“So, I’m just assuming that Exxon’s one of its members,” Simon said. “I guess I’m just concerned from a conflicts perspective if you’re being funded by an organization that you don’t know their members, how do you, I guess, ensure … lack of conflicts from a journalistic integrity point of view?”

Sandoval then put Dempsey, an FTI Consulting colleague and opinion editor for Western Wire, on the phone to answer Simons’ questions. Dempsey is also a former spokesman for Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a renowned climate denier.

Taking a more confrontational tone, Dempsey asked Simons if his interest in Exxon’s membership is as a lawyer representing Boulder or for his own personal information.

“We’re ready to proceed on an interview about the case, but if this is something else, we need to know that now,” said Dempsey, adding that he contacted Simons at the request of the City of Boulder.

Simons reiterated his position.

“What I’m saying is that if you’re representatives of Exxon in any fashion, I can’t talk to you about the litigation as an ethical matter because Exxon is represented by counsel, and I can only talk to their counsel,” Simons said.

Dempsey did not deny representing Exxon and instead questioned Simons’ statement.

“You say you have a conflict in speaking with Western Wire, but that you do not have a conflict in speaking with InsideClimate News, or with Climate Liability News,” Dempsey said.

Simons again said he had a conflict with Western Wire only if the organization was representing Exxon in any way, something neither Dempsey nor Sandoval denied. 

Dempsey persisted in the same line of questioning and Simons repeatedly said he could not comment since the two were Exxon representatives.

“I cannot comment about this litigation unless you can tell me that you are not representatives in any way of Exxon,” Simons said.

Dempsey declined to answer and then ended the phone call.

Skirting the Rules?

Ethics rule prohibit lawyers from speaking to people who represent their opponents in a lawsuit, said Jane Kirtley, director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota Law School, who reviewed the audio and transcript of the call.

“The burden is on the attorney,” Kirtley said. “That attorney is not supposed to be talking to individuals who are represented by another lawyer without that other lawyer being present. That’s the rule.”

“The concern for the lawyer would be, if I’m basically being tricked into talking to this person, am I violating ethics rules without knowing that I am?” she said.

Kirtley said the tactic is known as a sock puppet: one side trying to get information through unusual measures they might not get through pretrial discovery. She said a court could impose sanctions for trying to get around the rules of discovery during active litigation.  

Dempsey said he contacted Simons after being referred to him by the City of Boulder.

“Western Wire contacted the City of Boulder, which we have done on numerous occasions over the past year as part of our reporting, and this time around, the local communications person for Boulder referred us to EarthRights International,” Dempsey said in a phone interview with Climate Liability News.

A spokesperson for the City of Boulder said the city refers all media inquiries related to its climate suit to EarthRights.

While contact between plaintiffs and defendants is allowed during litigation, both sides should disclose who they are representing, Simons said. He said he does not know the details of Exxon’s involvement in Western Wire, but the two PR representatives should have disclosed it.

“I have some pretty serious general ethical concerns if people who are representatives of Exxon are contacting the City of Boulder without disclosing that they’re representatives of Exxon and talking about the litigation,” Simons said. “I think that is the root of the problem here.” 

Exxon did not respond to a request for comment.

The incident seems to fall in line with a wider effort by Exxon to discredit the effort to bring climate liability suits. The company has so far unsuccessfully tried to sue to stop two states from investigating it for climate fraud and it has filed suit in Texas against several California communities that have sued the oil giant, asking to investigate a possible “conspiracy” between the communities and the legal firms aiding them. In Dempsey’s questioning of Simons, he attempted to ask whether Simons had spoken to CLN or InsideClimate News, two nonprofit journalism organizations he said receive funding from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which Exxon has accused of being part of the conspiracy against it.

More Ethical Questions

Kirtley said the incident reminds her of astroturfing, a practice where public relations firms appear to represent grassroots citizen activists and not a corporate interest.

“If you’ve come from a strategic communications background where somebody says that’s an acceptable thing to do, then it’s really only one more step to say why don’t we appear to be citizen activists, why don’t we appear to be journalists,” Kirtley said.

“It sounds like these individuals are actually public relations, strategic communications types, that seems to be what their real job is,” she said, adding that falsely claiming to be journalists is unethical, but not against the law.

“But of course, then the question becomes ‘whose ethics are we talking about?’ These people are not journalists, they’re not bound by journalistic ethics, so the question becomes would the Public Relations Society of America or someone say that’s unethical” Kirtley said.

Debra Peterson, national chair of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), said ethical practice is the most important obligation of its members.

“Our ethics code has a provision regarding disclosure of information, which requires members to be honest and accurate in all of their communications, avoid deceptive practices, and reveal the sponsors for causes and interests,” Peterson said in a statement.

A spokesperson for PRSA confirmed that some employees of FTI Consulting are members of the association.

Kirtley said it’s unclear what, if any, impact the incident will have on Boulder’s climate lawsuit, which is still in the early stages.

“There’s nothing here that suggests a violation of criminal law at this stage, but it does raise ethical concerns, certainly for the lawyers involved.”