New Colorado Energy Office agenda: Push for zero-emissions electricity generation and zero-emissions vehicles, and to concentrate on ways to bring down ozone pollution along the Front Range

New Colorado Energy Office director lays out Polis’ agenda on renewable energy

Jan 15, 2019

Just hours after being stung by a court decision Monday limiting the kinds of public-health protections the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission must weigh when determining whether to issue drilling permits, Gov. Jared Polis’ new Colorado Energy Office director unveiled the administration’s new goals for reducing the emissions that come from those wells and other sources.

Will Toor explained in a presentation to the House Energy & Environment Committee that the new Democratic governor has asked him to help the state transition to a 100 percent renewable-energy grid by 2040, dramatically reduce methane emissions and increase energy efficiency across Colorado. He also said the office will take on a new leadership role in increasing the electrification of the transportation system by promoting zero-emissions vehicles and easing Colorado away from having so many cars with internal-combustion engines.

The presentation marked a significant difference in the focus of the office, just eight months after former Gov. John Hickenlooper signed into law a bill that reiterated the office’s mission to promote both traditional and alternative fuel sources — while continuing to help residents, businesses, schools and farms to cut down on energy usage and install modern energy technology. At no point Monday did Toor, who replaced Hickenlooper appointee Kathleen Staks, mention the promotion of oil and gas, emphasizing instead that fuel-burning cars and methane-emitting wells are threats to the environment and sources of climate change that the state must address.

Instead, he said that he intends to use the office to push for zero-emissions electricity generation and zero-emissions vehicles, and to concentrate on ways to bring down ozone pollution along the Front Range.

“I think it won’t come to anybody as a surprise, but Governor Polis has made some clear promises in our work on energy,” Toor said. “I think we’re going to have a pretty interesting agenda around energy moving forward.”

Toor comes from a background of decades working as a renewable-energy advocate, serving most recently as transportation program director for the Boulder-based Southwest Energy Efficiency project. Still, when his appointment was announced on Dec. 21, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association responded that they looked forward to working with Toor, saying that officials “always found him more focused on positive outcomes than picking winners and losers.”

Toor’s presentation didn’t differentiate into winners and losers. But he made sure to say that he will push the office to help anyone who seeks to move away from traditional gas consumption toward electricity, particularly in the area of vehicles.

Colorado is now sixth in the country, with electric vehicles representing about 2.5 percent of its new-vehicle purchases in August. But the goal of the Polis administration is to get 1 million battery-powered cars onto the road by 2030 — up from about 15,000 right now — and the energy office will be “very active” in promoting that transformation, he said.

It will do so by promoting and supporting incentives for Coloradans to buy electric vehicles until they are cost-competitive with gas-powered cars, which is likely to be sometime around 2025, Toor said. It will do so also by finding ways to get more charging stations installed along major highways, as the state is doing right now in a $10.3 million contract with California-based ChargePoint to install 33 fast-charging stations along six major corridors.

And it will do so by trumpeting what Toor described as the benefits to all electricity users of getting more people to drive electric vehicles. By having those car owners plug their vehicles into charge overnight, when electricity is cheapest during off-peak hours, that can allow utilities to get more out of their fixed costs and put downward pressure on rates for everyone, he said.

“I think it’s important to recognize that transportation has surpassed electricity generation as the largest source of greenhouse gases,” Toor added, bringing the presentation back to its central theme on using the office to affect climate change.

Republican legislators on the committee largely were subdued in their questioning of the change in focus coming to the office. Rep. Lois Landgraf, R-Fountain, prodded Toor several times about how the state was planning to fund roadway improvements if there is a surge in vehicles that don’t pay gas taxes, but Toor responded that an existing $50 registration fee on all electric vehicles should suffice until state leaders can come up with a more holistic way to fund transportation.

The discussion came as Republicans and energy-industry groups were still hailing Monday’s Colorado Supreme Court ruling that the COGCC does not have to consider public health above other concerns when deciding on new well permits — and Democrats fomented that they must get busy changing the state law to require that paramount consideration. That decision overturned a Colorado Court of Appeals ruling in what was known as the Martinez case.

While the Colorado Energy Office does not regulate oil and gas production, it’s clear that its goals aim for the state to be less reliant on those traditional forms of energy. And that effort could dovetail with House Democrats’ efforts, which were state Tuesday, to interpret the Martinez decision and then pass laws that will require the COGCC to consider public health first and foremost.

Legislative Republicans, who now are in the minority in both the House and Senate, appear ready to defend the oil and gas industry going forward against changes that could cost jobs in the sector.

“The oil and gas industry has done an excellent job of providing the people of Colorado energy while protecting our environment, and the safeguards put in place by the COGCC enable this state to continue to be one of the top places to live and raise a family,” said Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling.