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Colorado commission votes 8-1 to adopt zero-emissions vehicle mandate after three-day hearing

Colorado's adoption of ZEV rule means more electric vehicles will be on sale in the state. Commissioner Tom Gonzales voting against the rule.

Traffic on westbound Interstate 70 at Floyd Hill in August 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission voted to approve the state’s adoption of the zero-emissions vehicle mandate on Friday morning after a three-day hearing.

The vote was 8-1 in favor of the rule, which is expected to help improve air quality and make auto manufacturers expand electric vehicles choices in the state.  Commissioner Tom Gonzales, who serves as Public Health Director of Larimer County Department of Health and Environment, voted against adoption.

Colorado becomes the 10th state to join California’s ZEV program, and the latest in a decade. After three long days of listening to testimony, commission members voted to approve before 9 a.m. on Friday.  

“This is an important step forward,” said Commissioner Auden Schendler, who is from Basalt. “But frankly, it’s a modest step. I think it’s as important for what it does as for what it signals. One of the big signals is the fact that auto manufacturers said we support it, this is technically feasible, we can move forward. I think it’s going to add energy to the emissions reduction effort just when we need it.”

During his remarks, Gonzales said he knows something must be done to help people who live near high-traffic roads and breathe in severe pollution. But he struggled with adopting ZEV because it’s a policy that impacts one major party — manufacturers — and doesn’t address the impact on auto dealerships. 

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“They get these cars, they hopefully will sell and that’s great. But what if they don’t? That’s where I get concerned,” he said. “…I’m having a hard time on is this enforceable?”

Gov. Jared Polis pushed for the adoption of ZEV primarily to reduce the state’s terrible air quality. The Denver metro area has been out of compliance with federal air-quality standard rules since 2008. 

“In one of my first executive orders as governor, I asked for the Department of Public Health and Environment to increase the choices Coloradans have when it comes to purchasing electric cars by increasing the number of models available in our state, and we got it done within a few short months,” Polis said in a written statement. “It’s only the beginning. Colorado must continue to reduce smog and increase consumer choice.”

The ZEV mandate requires auto makers to sell more zero-emission vehicles starting in 2023. State Air Pollution Control Division staff researched the number and estimated that this would require auto makers to make ZEVs 4.9% of the cars sold in Colorado in 2023 and growing to 6.1% by 2030.

Earlier ZEV coverage:
* The FAQs of Colorado’s zero-emissions adoption
* The fierce debate over Colorado’s new zero-emissions rules includes auto dealers who are meeting future standard
* Auto dealers say electric car mandate — a cornerstone of Colorado’s clean air quest — is a threat to tradition
* Automakers and state agree on ZEV alternative to get electric vehicles to Colorado faster

Mike Silverstein, executive director of the Regional Air Quality Council, applauded the commission’s decision but also iterated that ZEVs are just one part of what needs to be done. Other efforts to reduce emissions from the oil and gas industry are underway, plus there are new laws to focus on the electricity industry and the move to cleaner energy production.

“The RAQC is pleased with the commission’s decision to add another program that will benefit air quality in the Front Range and throughout the state,” Silverstein said. “It’s excellent from a climate perspective especially in reducing greenhouse gases but it will also help with summertime ozone levels. That’s difficult because there are so many sources (of ozone) and there isn’t one control strategy that will solve the problem. But to help us control future vehicle emissions through this program will benefit the region and jumpstart and incentivize and accelerate the move to electrify the vehicle fleet throughout the state.”

The Freedom to Drive Coalition, testifying against the ZEV standard, said the commission relied too much on staff research and should have looked more deeply into the economic impact to other industries and rural Colorado. Generous $5,000 tax-credit incentives to new EV buyers are not a benefit to people who can’t afford an EV or who don’t want one.

“We’re disappointed in the result. We think it’s economically myopic,” said Kelly Sloan, executive director of Freedom to Drive Coalition, which represents organizations like the Colorado Wheat Growers, Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce and the Colorado Petroleum Association. “We, too, are excited by the future of EVs, but unlike the commission and interest groups mobilized to support EVs, we don’t want to do it at the expense of the rest of the state.”

Sloan said the group hasn’t figured out if it will pursue legal action to get the commission decision reversed.

Auto dealers tried to make the case that they must buy the cars from the auto manufacturer but when cars don’t sell, they lose money daily, paying for interest and maintenance on the car. They feel Coloradans buy SUVs and pickups, which currently are rare in electric form although many are in the works, including an electric F-150 truck from Ford.

Tim Jackson, president of the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association, said local dealerships will lose money on cars if they have to discount the EVs to get them sold.

MORE: The FAQs of Colorado and ZEV

“Even though the vote was fairly overwhelming, there was a lot of concern that it doesn’t mean anything,” Jackson said. “…But if it wasn’t going to be mean anything, then why do it because it will raise the price of cars that Coloradans want and need to buy.”

The number of dealerships nationwide have been shrinking and many lose money on the sale of new cars — be it gas or electric, according to data from the National Automobile Dealers Association. A prime source of revenues for the dealers comes from service and repairs. Electric vehicles are known for not needing as much maintenance. Division staff reports estimated that over the life of an electric car, owners would initially pay more for the car but would save $5,127 on fuel and $5,057 in maintenance costs.

Auto manufacturers worked separately with the state Department of Transportation and the Energy Office to create an alternate route to adopting ZEV. The proposal, which the commission also adopted, allows auto makers to begin earning credits as early as January to meet sales requirements when ZEV starts in 2023. This is the first time auto manufacturers have worked together with a state to adopt ZEV.

“There’s value to compromise and bringing the automakers on board,” said Garry Kaufman, director of the Air Pollution Control Division, adding that they have requested one extra full-time employee to help track early EV sales. “A lot of the challenges now are how to go to the next step and those are really going to require the automakers’ active participation.”

For more on how the zero-emissions vehicle ruling will impact Colorado, check out our earlier coverage:

This story has been updated throughout the day with comments from various parties.


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