Guest commentary: Polis must get Colorado on track to meet climate goals

Colorado Public Radio, July 8, 2020 Activist Lawsuit Alleges Gov. Polis Isn’t Moving Quickly Enough On Climate Change, by Sam Brasch

Excel Energy Cherokee Generating Station
The Excel Energy Cherokee Generating Station in Denver, June 2, 2020.

Gov. Jared Polis’ administration is working to curb climate change, but it will soon face new legal pressure to do it faster.

WildEarth Guardians, an environmental advocacy group, filed a lawsuit in Denver District Court against the administration demanding a comprehensive plan to meet ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals Polis signed into law in 2019

The complaint alleges July 1 is the legal deadline to propose rules to meet those goals. But Colorado’s air quality regulators, who worked to reduce the state’s climate impact, are months away from completing plans to implement the law. 

We want this lawsuit to send a powerful message: we need to step it up,” said Jeremy Nichols, the climate and energy program director with WildEarth Guardians. 

The lawsuit concerns two landmark pieces of climate legislationThe first is Colorado’s climate action plan, which sets goals for greenhouse gas emission reductions. It requires statewide cuts — based on 2005 emissions levels — of a 26 percent reduction by 2025, 50 percent by 2030 and 90 percent by 2050.

To measure progress toward those goals, the legislature passed a companion bill to require the Air Quality Control Commission to monitor greenhouse gas emissions. It also contains the deadline at the center of the lawsuit. According to the legislation, the commissioners must propose rules that would “cost-effectively allow the state to meet its greenhouse gas emission reduction goals” by July 1. 

The question is whether the deadline in the second bill applies to the targets in the first. 

Upon signing the second bill, Polis made it clear he doesn’t think so. In a statement, he wrote his administration planned to stake a step-by-step approach to meeting the targets laid out in the climate action plan.

“I want to make clear I expect the implementation of cost-effective greenhouse house gas emission reduction efforts to be an interactive and multi-faceted process including recommended legislative actions over the upcoming years that will span multiple state agencies,” he wrote. 

While the dispute is wonky, it signals a split over how Colorado should try to untether its economy from greenhouse gas emissions. Polis, who ran on a promise of 100 percent renewable energy, has advocated for a sector-by-sector approach to reducing the state’s carbon impact. His administration imagines separate efforts to control the impact of transportation, electricity generation, fossil fuels and agriculture. 

Other states, like California, have taken more of an economy-wide approach through a cap-and-trade policy. The system allows companies to buy and sell licenses to emit carbon and other greenhouse gases. In February, Polis told Colorado Matters cap-and-trade “doesn’t get into the nuances” of meeting climate goals.

While the complaint doesn’t call for a cap-and-trade system, Nichols said it is meant to force the administration to show it’s serious about the state’s greenhouse gas emissions targets. Other environmental advocates agree the Polis Administration needs to put rules in place. While the Environmental Defense Fund did not sign onto the lawsuit, Pam Kiely, who directs regulatory strategy for the organization, said the state should outline a clear plan to meet Colorado’s climate targets.

“What is most important is whether the Air Quality Control Commission proposes — and ultimately adopts — a regulation or a suite of regulations that will result indefinite, quantifiable, enforceable reductions and that those reductions are sufficiently ambitious to guarantee that Colorado meets its climate targets,” said Kiely.

John Putnam, director of environmental programs for the Colorado Department Of Public Health and Environment, has assisted the Air Quality Control Commission as it completes new rules to meet the climate goals. When the governor signed the bills, he said the state was already crafting new regulations to reduce emissions from oil and gas production and promote electric vehicles. Putnam said the governor needed to clarify those regulations would move forward despite the new law and the deadline.

“We were not going to sit around waiting. We were going to start implementing rules before July 1, 2020,” he said. 

Putnam added a single plan to meet the goals would be impractical. To shift Colorado’s economy away from greenhouse gases, multiple state agencies would need to figure out new regulations, not just the Air Quality Control Commission. It would also take additional financial resources from the legislature. 

Taken together, he said the commission alone couldn’t meet the deadline.

“The Polis administration has taken unprecedented action to advance renewable energy and confront the climate crisis and we have already achieved commitments from nearly all utilities operating coal plants in Colorado to accelerate retirements of these plants and set the stage for electrification of our economy with clean renewables.  The State 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 scenario.  We are getting this done the Colorado way by working on smart strategies that lower emissions while strengthening our economy.

Democratic House Speaker KC Becker, who shepherded both bills to Polis’ desk, said the language of the law is straightforward: Polis and his state agencies needed to propose rules to meet the emissions targets on July 1.

“The legislature was clear about what it wanted. It wanted to see actionable, specific, comprehensive, enforceable plans to meet those goals,” she said. “We still don’t have that today.”

Such a plan is still months away. The state has been working with an outside consultant on a roadmap to guide its policymaking to meet the climate targets. Putnam expects the effort to wrap up by the end of September.

He added the lawsuit won’t force the state to move any faster. If anything, he worries it could divert scarce legal resources away from the rulemaking process into a legal defense. In a statement from the Governor’s Office, spokesperson Conor Cahill expanded on the point, writing the administration has taken “unprecedented action” to retire coal-fired power plants and electrify Colorado’s economy.

“It’s very unfortunate that some seek to distract from the nationally-leading success of Colorado in order to justify a risky and expensive strategy such as a state-based cap and trade system that has not demonstrated the ability to effectively cut emissions elsewhere.  Coloradans trust that Governor Polis will continue to act boldly and swiftly and utilize the tools and resources available to create good green jobs, address climate change, and ensure we can all breathe cleaner air,” wrote Cahill.

Nichols countered the state doesn’t need to waste time fighting the lawsuit. All it needs to do is submit rules to put Colorado on track to meet its climate goals.

“We don’t rush into lawsuits. It’s not something we take lightly, but the stakes are so high here,” he said.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated with a link to the filed complaint and a response from the Colorado Governor’s Office.

By JEREMY NICHOLS and EAN THOMAS TAFOYA  Denver Post, July 6, 2020,

While Colorado is leading the way on climate action, its accountability to climate justice remains elusive as the state is still way off track to meet legally required greenhouse gas reduction targets.

This lack of climate progress is putting Colorado’s most disproportionately impacted populations—Black and Latino communities, low-income neighborhoods, and indigenous peoples—at tremendous risk. This has to change.

In 2019, Gov. Jared Polis signed into law House Bill 1261, which committed to reducing statewide greenhouse gases 26% by 2025, 50% by 2030, and 90% by 2050. This landmark legislation also called for regulators to prioritize achieving these reductions in communities experiencing disproportionate environmental harms and risks from sources of climate pollution.

In other words, Polis’ commitment to climate action wasn’t just to curtail pollution, but to do so where the pollution disproportionately threatens the health and welfare of people of color, low-income neighborhoods, and tribal communities. Recognizing the vital importance of achieving climate justice, in 2019 Colorado’s Legislature also passed Senate Bill 96, which required the Polis administration to propose new regulations to achieve the state’s greenhouse gas reduction targets. The law set a deadline to propose these new rules by July 1, 2020.

That deadline has now passed and Colorado is nowhere near meeting its greenhouse gas reduction goals and nowhere near achieving climate justice. Reports by both nongovernmental organizations and the state’s own consultants show that under our current trajectory, we are not even close to being on track to meet our 2025 and 2030 emission reduction targets. With no near-term success in sight, the prospect of long-term climate progress is wishful thinking.

The consequences of this missed deadline and lack of progress are all too real for people living in the shadow of the Suncor oil refinery north of Denver. This refinery has been all over the news in the past year because of ongoing air pollution violations. Even though regulators this year fined Suncor nearly $9 million, the company continues to report unlawful releases of toxic gases like hydrogen sulfide, benzene, sulfur
dioxide, and more.

All this air pollution impacts the neighboring community where more than half the residents live below the poverty level and more than 75% are people of color. It’s a poster child for environmental injustice, where a dangerous source of air pollution disproportionately affects people who are underprivileged, disenfranchised and disempowered.

And it’s a poster child for climate injustice. Suncor’s refinery happens to be one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in Colorado, every year releasing as much climate pollution as 200,000 cars.

With Gov. Polis’ commitment to climate action, one would think addressing the Suncor oil refinery’s pollution would be near the top of the list of strategies to reduce greenhouse gases. It’s not.

In fact, the state’s most recent list of potential strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions doesn’t even mention disproportionately impacted communities, let alone facilities like Suncor. Making matters worse, Colorado regulators aren’t scheduled to consider adopting any new rules to limit climate pollution until 2021 at the earliest.

We know Gov. Polis has good intentions, but the state’s failure to reduce greenhouse gases has very real implications for the health and well-being of the most vulnerable Coloradans.

July 1, 2020, has passed with no meaningful progress toward meeting the state’s climate goals. Legal deadlines matter. This isn’t just about urgent action to reduce greenhouse gases to protect our global climate, it’s about achieving environmental justice in this state.

Good intentions aren’t enough to confront the climate crisis. For equity and justice, Gov. Polis has to get Colorado back on track to meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets and live up to its commitment to meaningful climate action.