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Wind turbines near Matheson, Colo., are part of Xcel Energy's new 600 megawatt Rush Creek Wind Project. Rush Creek, which became operational in October 2018, uses 300 turbines to generate enough electricity to power 325,000 homes. Xcel estimates the project will cut 1 million tons of carbon emissions each year from its system. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The clock is ticking. Each day climate-altering, man-made gases are building up in the atmosphere and Colorado’s effort to help stem the tide is running late.

The Air Quality Control Commission missed a July 1 deadline to issue draft rules to meet Colorado’s greenhouse gas reduction targets – or perhaps it didn’t. It all depends upon whom you ask.

What many – commissioners, officials, environmentalists – agree upon is that the efforts to establish a plan to cut emissions of carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases are moving at a molasses pace.

“There is this awesome slowness of public policy,” said Auden Schendler, an AQCC commissioner and Aspen Ski Co.’s vice president of sustainability. “The challenge is: How do you make the bureaucratic machinery work as quickly as possible and get things done?”

Some critics say what is lacking is a lead from Gov. Jared Polis, who issued an executive order on zero-emission vehicles in 2018, a roadmap to 100% renewable energy in 2019 and signed the climate legislation, but hasn’t been highly visible on the issue since.

“The unwillingness of the governor to throw his full weight to meet these targets, a lack of full-throated support on the policies he has signed off on, is concerning,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for Wild Earth Guardians. The environmental group plans to sue the AQCC for its failure to meet the July 1 deadline.

Some political guidance is needed on whether to make specific rules for different types of polluters, or enact statewide, economy-wide initiatives such as congestion pricing to discourage people from driving or a carbon tax, Schendler said.  “Where does the governor stand on these issues?” he asked.

Two bills with many demands

In 2019, two bills were signed by Polis, a Democrat, to address climate change. One, House Bill 1261, set goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 26% over 2005 levels by 2025, 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050. It gave the AQCC the task of issuing rules to meet the targets.

A second bill, Senate Bill 96, largely dealt with filling reporting gaps on emissions sources, but one paragraph directed the AQCC to propose a rulemaking by July 1 containing measures to “cost-effectively allow the state to meet its greenhouse emission reduction goals.”

The Polis administration points to the rules that have been implemented, the executive orders that have been issued and the announced closures of coal-fired units by utilities as steps along the way to meeting the goals.

“The state has fully complied with the requirement in SB19-096 to propose rulemakings that would be necessary to meet the HB 19-1261,” Conor Cahill, a Polis spokesman, said in an email. “No other state government has found a single silver bullet to address climate change and none exist. Instead, it requires many coordinated and careful steps to do it right.”

MORE: Colorado Springs will shut down its two coal-fired plants by 2030. Now it’s time for Xcel to do the same, environmentalists say.

In an effort to get things going, the commission has formed a subcommittee, which will meet July 16 to evaluate potential emission-reduction rules. “There are some obvious things to be done and we are eager to start,” said Elise Jones, a commission member and a Boulder County commissioner.

It is a start. Still, stakeholders are anxious. “There are some legitimate concerns about the pace,” said Jacob Smith, executive director of Colorado Communities for Climate Action, a coalition of 34 local governments around the state promoting climate policies.

“They have passed some rules that will help us meet those goals but when you measure how much we need to reduce there is a huge gap. There is a long way to go and the current pace is not adequate,” Smith said.

While there is not yet an overarching plan, progress is being made on a number of fronts, according to John Putnam, director of environmental programs at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Putnam said the effort has been limited by resources. The bills setting the targets appropriated about $550,000 for the 2019-20 fiscal year. Colorado has four full-time staff working on the issue, Putnam said, while California has 212.

The AQCC, Putnam pointed out, is a volunteer commission that meets once or twice a month and is also dealing with Colorado’s ozone pollution problem and a requirement to issue rules for cutting methane emissions from oil and gas operations.

An Ajax Analytics air monitoring station is pictured on a utility pole across from Prospect Ridge Academy High School along Preble Creek Highway in Broomfield as part of a program to track air quality in areas near oil and gas operations. It was photographed Thursday, April 4, 2019. (Andy Colwell, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Nevertheless, better data on emission sources has been developed and three rules that will help meet the goals – on zero-emission vehicles, emissions reporting and reducing hydrofluorocarbon gases, and oil and gas methane reductions – have been passed, Putnam said. 

“It did not say we need to have one rule to rule them all, to address all questions by July 1,” he said.

House Speaker KC Becker, a Boulder Democrat and co-sponsor of House Bill 1261, does not see it that way. “The law is the law,” she said. “This calls for a specific rule on how the state is going to meet the greenhouse gas emissions goals.”

“They are taking action on a few fronts and that is good, but it is clear what this law requires,” Becker said.

State Sen. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat, who sponsored Senate Bill 96, said he never envisioned a definitive rule being adopted by July 1. Developing a climate plan, he said, will be “an iterative and cooperative process between the legislature and executive branch.”

Baseline science is (mostly) missing

To develop a comprehensive rule or greenhouse reduction plan requires a few key elements: the 2005 baseline emissions, today’s emissions, a forecast of which emissions are on a natural decline or increase and how much various rules will cut emissions.

At best, the AQCC has two, maybe three, out of four. Emission reporting in 2005 was sketchier and work has been done to improve the baseline, said Keith Hay, director of policy for the Colorado Energy Office.

In 2005, Colorado emitted about 140 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gases. (Carbon dioxide is the prime greenhouse gas and other greenhouse gases, such as methane or HFCs, are translated into carbon equivalents to give a total emissions number.)

The electric power sector accounted for 29% of emissions, transportation for 21%; oil and gas for 14.5%; industrial energy 13%; agriculture 10%; and coal mining 7.6%.

By 2019, emissions, based on modeling, were already down almost 9% and there had been big changes in where the emissions were coming from. Electric power was 22.8% of emissions and transportation was 21.2%. Oil and gas emissions had risen to 17% and coal emissions dropped to 1.6%.

“We are reaching a crossover point in the state where transportation is the largest source of emissions,” Hay said. “So, it becomes more important to address the sector.”

In February, the state hired a consultant, Energy+Environmental Economics, or E3, to develop a “Greenhouse Gas Roadmap” for the state. The road map, due at the end of September, will include detailed modeling to understand the trends in emissions and the effects of policy.

The Craig Station coal-burning power plant in Moffat County is pictured Feb. 27, 2020. Tri-State Generation plans to close the plant by 2030. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

E3 modeling added some recent initiatives – such as the closing of two coal-fired units in Craig, new appliance efficiency standards, zero-emission vehicles and carbon emission reduction plans by the state’s two largest electricity providers, Xcel Energy and the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association.

Under this scenario, by 2025 emissions will be 22% below 2005 levels, just 4% off the target reduction, but without additional action by 2030 emissions will be 28% below 2005 levels and far from the 50% reduction goal.

Since the modeling was done, the Platte River Power Authority and Colorado Springs Utilities have announced they will shut coal-fired power plants by 2030. Hay said the modeling would be updated with these closures.

These are the gaps that the AQCC must close in order to meet the goals of House Bill 1261. The questions bedeviling the commission are how to close them and whether they even have the power to do what needs to be done.

The electric power sector and transportation account for the largest share of emissions.

“What power does the AQCC have to accelerate plant closures?” Jones asked at the last commission meeting in June.

The Colorado Public Utilities Commission, under legislation passed at the same time as the climate bills, also has a mandate to require the utilities it regulates to submit clean energy plans and to consider the social cost of carbon in evaluating plants and projects, all in the name of cutting power plant emissions.

“We don’t have the institutional capacity to deal with all the issues of coal closures,” Putnam told the commissioners. It was better left to the PUC, he said.

As for transportation, much of the planning and oversight rests with the Colorado Department of Transportation.

Schendler asked at the commission meeting whether they had the power to set greenhouse gas budgets for transportation emissions. “Yes, you have the power in conjunction with CDOT and DRCOG [the Denver Council of Region Governments],” Putnam said.

Part of the problem is that the commission doesn’t have a good handle on what emission reductions will come from various policies – such as a low-carbon fuel standard or a building energy efficiency standard, Jones said.

Without that, she said, “We are flying a little bit, actually a lot, blind.”

Different analysis depending on the agency

Hay said that the state energy office is doing analyses on low-carbon fuels emission reductions and for replacing carbon fuels with clean electricity. CDOT is doing an analysis on emission reductions from transportation management.

At its July 16 subcommittee meeting, the commission will examine mitigation strategies in several areas including electricity, oil and gas, transportation and buildings.

Yet even as they begin this exercise, some commissioners voice concerns over whether a rule-by-rule approach of incremental emission cuts will work.

“We’ve passed all these things that are out of the park,” such as methane reductions, hydrofluorocarbon cuts and zero-emission vehicles, Schindler said. “Each time it advances the ball up the field and then we get sued.”

The Colorado Automobile Dealers Association filed a lawsuit against the ZEV rules, which requires a portion of the cars offered for sale in the state to be EVs. Colorado adopted the ZEV rule developed by California.

MORE: A first look at how Colorado will become a ZEV state: the rule, the cost, the debate

Nine rural Colorado counties have sued the commission over the oil and gas methane rules.

There are questions of whether the state can succeed with such litigious, piecemeal regulations.

At the last AQCC meeting Dr. Tony Gerber, an associate professor of medicine at National Jewish Health and a commissioner, said “we don’t hit the numbers without bold action.”

Those steps could be a statewide carbon tax, congestion pricing or a cap-and-trade system, under which emission credits are bought and sold by emitters. Some of these initiatives run headlong into tax policy and limitations such at the Taxpayer Bill of Rights and need legislative action, Putnam said.

“If we really care about these problems it is going to require that level of big-scale thinking,” Schendler said. “At some point there is a need for huge directive leadership from the legislature or the governor that puts a stake in the ground and sends a signal of where we are headed.”

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @bymarkjaffe