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Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signs an executive order on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019, that puts the state on a path to be aligned with California's zero-emission vehicle standard. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Gov. Jared Polis on Thursday signed a sweeping executive order aimed at increasing the number of zero-emission vehicles in Colorado, a move that’s expected to mean more electric cars will be available for purchase in the state and which sets Colorado on a path to be aligned with California’s standards.

Polis also directed transportation officials to plan for more electric vehicles on Colorado’s roads. The order marks Polis’ largest effort to address climate change since being sworn into office earlier this month, quickly kicking off what’s expected to be an aggressive policy toward slashing carbon emissions.

“Here’s the key thing,” said Kelly Nordini, executive director of Conservation Colorado, “now that the governor has put Colorado on the map with this, auto dealers could bring in these (electric vehicle) models anytime they want. Auto dealers could decide tomorrow to start selling more of these cars here.”

Automakers haven’t been sending all-electric vehicles to Colorado in the same way they have to other states, such as California, that require a certain percentage of cars automakers offer to be zero-emission vehicles. Polis’ order could immediately change that, though it will likely be years before a zero-emission vehicle program actually goes into effect and automakers may wait to deliver more electric-vehicle models here because they don’t instantaneously have to.

“Despite the fact that Colorado has some of the highest consumer preference for electric vehicles, still many manufacturers don’t sell all of their models here and instead offer them in states that have adopted the (zero-emission vehicle) standard,” Polis said in announcing his directives. “We do not want Colorado consumers to be left behind.”

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, surrounded by state lawmakers, after signing an executive order on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019, in downtown Denver that puts the state on a path to be aligned with California’s zero-emission vehicle standard. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Polis ordered his Department of Public Health and Environment to develop a Colorado zero-emission vehicle program and propose it to the Air Quality Control Commission no later than May. The commission would have to approve the program for it to go into effect.

“This executive order that we are announcing today will help the health of our communities, strengthen and diversify our economy and also save money for consumers across the state,” Polis said at a news conference he arrived at in an all-electric Nissan Leaf. “Nationwide and in Colorado, transportation is the largest source of greenhouse-gas emissions. We all know the impact of climate change to our water supply, our agricultural industry, our ski industry, our air quality, our way of life.”

He added: “The time to act is now.”

Polis ambitiously pledged during his campaign to move Colorado to 100 percent renewable energy by 2040. His executive order, he said, is step-one in achieving that goal.

Read the executive order.

California pioneered a zero-emission vehicle program, which has since spread to 10 states. It requires automobile manufacturers to invest in clean technology and achieve specific sales goals for electric vehicles — between 4.5 percent this year to 22 percent by 2025.

Auto dealers in Colorado have been leery of such an executive order, as have some Republican lawmakers, fearing potential consumer cost increases and industry impacts.  

Sen. John Cooke, a Greeley Republican, even has brought a bill this legislative session aiming to prevent Colorado from adopting California’s vehicle standards. “This action does not encourage our automotive industry to innovate, it forces them to do so, and the result will undeniably be increased costs for Coloradans and lackluster, rushed products,” Cooke, the assistant Senate minority leader, said in a joint statement Thursday with GOP Sen. Ray Scott, of Grand Junction.

The auto industry in Colorado was also quick to push back.

“Colorado’s consumers do not need the government telling them what vehicles they should buy,” Tim Jackson, president and CEO of the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association, said in a statement responding to Polis’ executive order. “Let’s keep car-buying decisions in the hands of our citizens, not unelected California bureaucrats.”

Jackson added: “Three-quarters of Coloradans choose vehicles from the light-truck category, which includes pickups and SUVs, to meet Colorado’s challenging driving conditions. There is a reason you don’t see electric vehicles pulling horse trailers or hauling six kids to their events.”

MORE: Colorado votes 8-0 to join California’s low-emission vehicle standard

But Polis says he wants to take a Colorado-specific approach to a zero-emissions vehicle program and says his order does not impact tractors or other farming equipment as some in the agricultural industry had feared.

While the state has to follow the general outline of zero-emission vehicle standards set forth by California, should they be adopted by the air quality commission, there are still some changes that can be made in terms of how they are rolled out.

“There are decisions you can make about how this gets implemented,” said Will Toor, who is Polis’ new executive director of the Colorado Energy Office and who helped draft the executive order.  “… Where the biggest opportunities are, are really the whole sets of opportunities we can look at to help advance the electric vehicle market and make it easy for consumers, easy for the auto dealers.

“There’s a whole set of decisions we can make around how do we deploy charging infrastructure — what kind of consumer incentives are in place — that I think can have a big impact in terms of making it easy to meet the standard and hopefully go well beyond the standard.”

Polis’ executive order also makes significant changes to how the nearly $70 million in money the state received from the Volkswagen emissions settlement will be spent.

A Tesla electric vehicle. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

Former Gov. John Hickenlooper slated 85 percent of those funds to go toward replacing older diesel vehicles with something cleaner, part of Hickenlooper’s approach to encourage an array of vehicle fuel choices instead of pushing one power source above others. Polis’ executive order changes that so the money, close to $60 million, will pay for a transition to only electric vehicles — specifically for public transit, school buses and trucks.

The order also creates an interdepartmental electrification working group so that state government can coordinate “widespread transportation electrification across the state.”

“There will be roles to play in everything from the state fleet, to the work by CDOT, to there are economic development opportunities here,” Toor said. “It think it’s really pulling all of these agencies together to make sure that were helping to bring the benefits of zero-emission vehicles to the state.”

Hickenlooper shepherded Colorado through a transition to a low-emission vehicle state, setting the groundwork for Polis’ order Thursday.

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....