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Traffic backs up on Interstate 70 near Silvethorne on Jan. 7, 2018. It is a familiar scene on the main highway connecting Denver to the mountains. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert, File)

The sales of electric and hybrid vehicles continue to rise in Colorado. And to no surprise, the top-selling model this year is a crossover-SUV, the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid.

But that’s a hybrid, so gas power kicks in when needed. Pure electric vehicles, especially SUVs and pickups, are a much rarer breed at area auto dealerships and among Colorado drivers.

This could change if Gov. John Hickenlooper’s executive order for the state to join California’s low-emission vehicle standard moves forward next month.

“We have some interest in the all-electric vehicles and we can’t get the cars,” said Lee Payne, CEO of Planet Honda and Planet Hyundai in Golden. “There’s not much we can do until the manufacturer makes the decision to send it here. …They’re filling orders in states where they have a mandate.”

The Toyota RAV4 PHEV, which runs on gas and battery, was the top selling hybrid and electric vehicles in Colorado this year, according to the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association. (Handout)

But that June edict — from an outgoing governor, some complain — has become a political quagmire that could have repercussions for Hickenlooper’s presidential aspirations and the air Coloradans breathe.

The order was intended to combat a Trump administration proposal to freeze vehicle emission standards in 2021 and thereby undo a national standard forged between the Obama administration, major automakers and the state of California years ago. The process also has morphed into what some consider unnecessary for Colorado: mandates for zero-emission vehicles that abide by California’s rules.

“There’s never been another time we can find in history that a Colorado governor has ceded authority to an out-of-state board. CARB, of all things, the California Air Resource Board. They’re testing air quality in Long Beach and Sacramento — not in Aspen or anywhere in Colorado,” said Tim Jackson, CEO of the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association, representing auto dealers. “They can raise the standard and Colorado will have no choice of not complying.”

On the other hand, said Jacob Smith, executive director of the Colorado Communities for Climate Action, “Why would we stop improving emission standards?”

While Colorado still struggles to meet federal air-quality mandates, the transportation and oil and gas industries have cut back pollutants dramatically in the 50 years since the Clean Air Act. Fuels are much cleaner, lead has been eliminated and new cars are “98- to 99-percent cleaner for most tailpipe pollutants compared to the 1960s,” according to the EPA.

Staying on the path of lower emissions and better mileage will save consumers money, Smith said. By joining California, automakers also would likely offer more electric vehicles in Colorado.

MORE: An electric car for under $10,000? Used EVs becoming a more affordable, but risky, new market

“Every time we’ve looked at improving the safety standards or fuel economy for vehicles, the car industry kicks and screams and talks about how it’s going to harm the industry. And every time, we end up with safer cars that get better mileage and that consumers like,” Smith said. “This is another one of those.”

Politics aside, if Colorado moves forward to adopt LEV standards like California’s, nothing really changes for the state since the standard already exists under federal law.

However, should federal regulators roll back emission goals now deemed “not appropriate” by the Trump administration, Coloradans can still buy electric vehicles. There just won’t be a mandate, which aims to curb 2.1 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions through 2030, according to the state Air Pollution Division.

The state isn’t close to adopting California’s zero-emission standards. But the commission will now consider the possibility of doing so in December.

Meanwhile, Hickenlooper’s initial order to consider just low-emission vehicles — dubbed CLEAR, for Colorado Low Emission Automobile Regulations — moves forward and has its public hearing over proposed rules on Nov. 14.

Colorado’s LEV regulation: Proposed rules for the state to adopt California’s low-emission regulation would require, at minimum, all new vehicles sold and registered starting with model year 2022 to be California certified. Cost/benefits: 

– Cost of $750 million in compliance costs or $954 per vehicle
– Savings of $3,412 per vehicle in fuel costs, or $2.9 billion over life of the vehicles
– Reduction of 2 million tons CO2 through year 2030

Source: Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment

Why states must either join the federal emission standard or California’s

For those just tuning in, let’s rewind to 1970.

That’s when Congress passed the Clean Air Act. The Environmental Protection Agency was created and tasked with building a national program to regulate motor-vehicle emissions. The EPA began testing fuel economy the following year to get a better sense of pollutants spewing from the nation’s vehicles.

In 1975, the first fuel-efficiency results were recorded: An average of 13.5 miles per gallon for cars. Carbon dioxide emissions averaged 661 grams per mile.

Last year, the national average reached 29.1 mpg, according to the EPA and what is known as the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard, or CAFE.

Emissions have been cut in half since the start to an estimated 303 grams per mile.

But years even before the EPA could get a whiff of exhaust, California had already established its own rule. In 1966, the state created the first tailpipe emissions standards in the nation, according to the California Air Resources Board or CARB.

California was allowed to continue its separate — and stricter than the nation’s — path to regulating vehicle emissions. And the two standards have coexisted ever since, allowing states to join one or the other.

But for automakers, this meant building two models of the same car — one that met CAFE standards and one that met California’s higher CARB standard. And pretty much everyone preferred to have one national standard, a reason why the Bush administration rejected California’s waiver in 2007.

After much wrangling, President Barack Obama in 2012 persuaded 13 automakers to step up their fuel economy to 54.5 miles per gallon by the year 2025. And for the first time since emissions standards were created, there was one national standard.

During a mid-term review in 2016, a status report found that lower-than-expected gas prices meant that Obama targets were going to fall short, although regulators felt vehicles could still hit between 50 to 52.6 mpg.

When Trump-appointed EPA administrator Scott Pruitt took charge, he called the review “wrong” and the fuel standards too high. He announced in April plans to freeze the Obama goals at the 2020 level. The EPA also wants to revoke California’s waiver.

The nation’s automakers have been preparing for the stricter emission standards for years, so a freeze in 2021 translates into rolling back those goals. They’re not happy.

“I want to make it clear. The freezing that has come up from the administration is clearly a Trump rollback,” said Leighton J. Yates, senior manager of state affairs with the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. “We don’t support a freezing of the standards and we’ve been preparing for this for the past couple of years. We support one national program.”

As for states, they can join California’s standard to stay on track, and more than a dozen have done this.

That led to Hickenlooper’s order for Colorado to join the stricter California standard.

That brings us back to today, a period of affordable gas and an era where more than 70 percent of vehicles sold in Colorado are SUVs and trucks. California’s mix is more like 50/50 between cars and truck and SUV sales, said Jackson, with the state’s auto dealers association.

“To get the same fuel economy for the fleet, it will be much tougher for Colorado,” Jackson said.

But if the state doesn’t step up, said Smith, with Colorado Communities, local communities often absorb the costs of negative effects from climate.

“The perspective of our coalition is that if the federal government isn’t going to step up to tackle climate change, then we will and fuel efficiency is one area” the state can target, Smith said.

What zero emissions means for Colorado

Many things affect Colorado’s air quality. Like wildfires or unpaved roads. But soot from burning forests or particles from dust on the road aren’t greenhouse gases, the pollutant affected should the U.S. change its vehicle emission standard. About one-third of Colorado’s greenhouse gas emissions come from vehicles, according to the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division.

“Generally speaking, the idea of cleaner air is that more electric vehicles means we move away from fossil fuels to sources that don’t emit emissions directly, like wind and solar,” said Jeremy Neustifter, an Air Quality Planner for the division. “…You’re looking at eliminating the single largest source of air pollution in an urban area, which is always going to be cars.”

But the Colorado auto industry’s opposition isn’t focused on cleaner air.

A hazy drive on Colorado 9 between Breckenridge and Frisco. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Cars already pollute much less, use cleaner gasoline and get better gas mileage than a decade ago. The auto dealers association also takes older, heavier polluting cars off the road through its Clear the Air Foundation.

The issue is about forcing consumers to buy vehicles that often cost more, have a limited range and are deemed less powerful. Many don’t want that, said Payne, with Planet Honda in Golden.

“Consumers are opting for the more powerful car, and that’s particularly true in Colorado. The test drive consumers want to take is to … go up Genessee, one of the steepest hills in the county. They want to see how it performs,” Payne said. “If you underpower the new vehicles, the fleet won’t turn over as fast. You can slow down the process of turnover by making new products so much less compelling that people just keep their cars.”

It’s really about consumers dictating what they want, shying away from less powerful cars that require charging and recharging to drive long distances, said Todd Maul, partner at John Elway Chevrolet in Greeley.

“When we started talking (to Hickenlooper) about zero emissions and the California LEV mandate, I said, ‘Governor, one of the challenges we have in Colorado is our beautiful state, our lifestyle and the things we enjoy here practically require SUVs and trucks to go the mountains,’ ” Maul said. “Not to go political on you, the reality is we have a governor who is trying to embellish his credentials in the progressive world for a potential run at office.”

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an advocacy group for 12 of the nation’s largest automakers, opposes Colorado’s effort to become a ZEV state because the U.S. and California policies are still in sync. It’s premature to go this route, said Yates, who tracks Colorado trends for the organization.

California requires large automakers to sell electric vehicle as a percent of their whole fleet. Targets range between 4.5 percent this year to 22 percent by 2025 (California’s sales are around 6 percent for electric and plug-in hybrids this year, according to the California New Car Dealers Association).

But this doesn’t translate to individual cars. Rather, California uses a system of credits so vehicles with better mileage get more credit than lower-mileage ones. Miss the target and automakers would essentially be penalized $5,000 per vehicle.

Some leeway was built into the process to help states with lower electric vehicle volume, but that was by focusing sales in California to offset low sales in other states. The so-called travel and pooling provisions allowing automakers to spread EV sales across states ends this year for EVs.

That means states must consider the financial investment, Yates said.

California has led ZEV efforts by investing in them. In January, California Governor Jerry Brown pledged $2.5 billion over the next eight years to subsidize electric car purchases and fund a quarter million charging stations by 2025.

“If you’re going to adopt a consumption mandate, how are you going to fund these programs?” Yates said. “…What is Colorado going to do to meet that? It’ll have to put up tens of thousands of chargers.”

Colorado, which has invested in about 600 charging stations, has dedicated about $10 million of the funds from the VW emissions cheating settlement to fund electric vehicle charging stations.

The state air quality division, however, has not done an economic impact analysis yet for ZEV. Staff must wait for the Commission’s instruction. Adopting California’s low-emission standard, however, is expected to be absorbed into the current budget.

Colorado has progressed so well on its own, the auto industry doesn’t feel mandates are necessary. The state offers buyers some of the highest incentives, allowing lenders to take care of the paperwork so new owners get a $5,000 rebate at the time of purchase.

Data also shows that without a mandate, Colorado ranked as the fifth highest state for electric vehicle sales as part of all sales, ranking us above seven other states that adopted California’s ZEV standard.

“Coloradans like to be outdoors,” Yates said. “Colorado is going to continue to buy those (SUVs and pickups) vehicles. And as the (ZEV) market grows, they will have more options as the years go on.”

At least that’s the hope. Currently, 41 battery and plug-in electric vehicles models are available for sale in California. In Colorado, that number drops to 33.

By joining the California standard, there’s a greater chance more of these vehicles would become available in Colorado, said Joshua Cunningham, chief of the Advanced Clean Cars Branch at the California Air Resources Board.

“It’s fair to say that in the national program, there’s no guarantee that automakers will put cleaner cars in your state more so than any other state,” Cunningham said. “But if Colorado follows us, automakers will have to put clean cars in the state.”

Green Eyed Motors in Boulder showed up with a used Tesla at recent event in Denver showcasing electric vehicles. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

For Subaru-loving Coloradans, the company said it is committed to making sure its future electric cars reach residents despite earlier reports that Subaru will make them available first to ZEV states.

Its upcoming 2019 Crosstrek Hybrid, which runs on electricity and gas, is not yet available anywhere. It can travel 17 miles on electricity.

“It is our intention to sell a Subaru EV in Colorado, regardless of the state’s position on California emissions,” said Dominick Infante, a spokesman for Subaru of America. “The Crosstrek Hybrid will be available to Colorado dealers that opt-in to sell it.”

Whether Colorado joins California, the state continues to have air quality challenges mostly in the Denver and North Front Range region. In 2016, the state’s ground-level ozone pollution was teetering on “serious” nonattainment for ozone standards by the EPA. The state missed the July 2018 deadline.  

“The Front Range of Colorado is not meeting federal standards of air quality. A roll back of federal standards if Colorado doesn’t adopt California’s means we’re going to have more air pollution in an area that still does not comply with federal air standards,” said Patrick Cummins, senior policy adviser for the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University.

“Bottom line, air pollution is bad, a stricter air standard is good,” he said. “I say that half jokingly as someone who has been working on this for 30 years. If we’re going to have cleaner air and going to address the challenge of climate change, then we need to improve our emissions standard for motor vehicles and everything else.”

An Air Quality Control Commission hearing is scheduled for Nov. 15 to adopt up low-emission vehicle rules and join California. If that passes, the commission will consider potential rules for Zero Emission Vehicles on Dec. 22 with possible adoption of the California ZEV mandate next Spring. The state legislature would also be able approve or revoke the new standard in its next session.

NEXT: Colorado Air Quality Commission meeting 
Nov. 15, 2018

Rulemaking hearing for Regulation 20, Low Emission Vehicle Program at 9 a.m. at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment headquarters, 4300 Cherry Creek Drive South in Denver


Dec. 2007: EPA rejects California waiver (which would have included 16 other states) in order to focus on a national solution. The waiver would have forced automakers selling in those states to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent starting with model year 2016 model year or 43 miles per gallon for cars and light trucks. It would have also pushed an automaker fleet’s average to 35 miles per gallon.

July 8, 2009: EPA grants California a waiver to Clean Air Act after it was previously denied in March 2008. It added greenhouse gas regulations for carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and hydrofluorocarbons.

August 28, 2012: The Obama administration, with support from California and 13 automakers, announce the new vehicle standard raising fuel efficiency to 54.5 mpg by 2025.

April 2018: EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt says he will revoke Obama-era standards calling them “wrong” and “not appropriate.”

June 19, 2018: Gov. Hickenlooper signs executive order to direct the state Air Quality Control Commission to incorporate California’s low-emission vehicle program.

August 2, 2018: Trump Administration makes the proposal public to roll back fuel-efficiency standards for cars. The new rules won’t change existing U.S. fuel-efficiency goals until after 2021.

Nov. 15, 2018: Colorado Air Quality Control Commission expected to adopt California’s Low Emission Vehicle standard, which is needed before the state can adopt the California Zero Emission Vehicle standard.


  • Gov. John Hickenlooper’s executive order for Colorado to join California’s low-emission vehicle standard // Link
  • Colorado’s proposed Low Emission Automobile Regulation: // Link
  • Colorado economic impact report of adopting California’s LEV regulation // Link
  • Colorado Electric Vehicle Plan (Jan. 2018): LINK
  • California’s Zero Emission Vehicle tutorial and regulation// Link and Link
  • “Protecting Our Communities from Air Pollution” if rollback occurs — from Denver, Boulder and Jefferson County public health systems// Link

Update on Oct. 26, 2018 at 6:06 p.m. This story was corrected to fix the name of  Jacob Smith’s organization to Colorado Communities for Climate Action.


    Tamara writes about businesses, technology and the local economy for The Colorado Sun. She also writes the "What's Working" column, available as a free newsletter at Contact her at, or or on LinkedIn at in/gadgetress/