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Colorado governor releases final plan to reduce emissions by 90%. It’s still too vague, environmentalists say.

The Air Quality Control Commission is responsible for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from millions of vehicles and industrial and office buildings

United Power's Rattlesnake Solar Farm sits on 175 acres near Platteville, Colorado. (Carl Payne, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The state released its final version of the highly touted “Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap” Thursday, claiming it lays down the path and the timing of specific rules and legislation to achieve massive emissions reductions. But environmental advocates said it still is too vague to guarantee real change.

The report by Gov. Jared Polis and his climate change team, required by previous groundbreaking legislation, is meant to map the role of state departments and commissions in achieving 90% reductions in 2005 emissions levels by 2050. Polis said Colorado has already achieved a 40% reduction, ahead of midpoint targets, but needs to accelerate carbon dioxide reduction in the three key areas of electric generation, oil and gas production, and transportation. 

Separate from the roadmap’s targets, Polis has set the goal of 100% renewable energy use in the state in less than two decades. 

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The environmental imperative, Polis said in releasing the final report, is even more obvious now than when he took office two years ago with pledges to combat the greenhouse effect of climate change. The events Colorado “couldn’t have imagined” include three massive drought-driven wildfires in 2020 alone that grew into the largest in state history, Polis said, as well as an ongoing drought that is becoming the norm rather than the exception.

Scenes of wildfire evacuation across the state in 2020 served as “a stark reminder that climate refugees don’t only live near the oceans on the coast, but right here in Colorado,” Polis said. 

MORE: Colorado’s statewide drought “pretty dire.” It’ll take more than a season’s snowfall to get out of it.

The roadmap calls on the Public Utilities Commission, for example, to make the target 80% reduction in electric power emissions by 2030 a “floor” rather than the ceiling, and Polis said rapid reductions in the cost of utility-scale solar and wind energy make further reductions attainable. 

Regulators are joining with advocates for creating timelines for drafting new regulations at the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to reduce high emissions from drilling, production and refining, and many of those rules will be finished in 2021. 

The Air Quality Control Commission has the much more complex task of reducing carbon dioxide from millions of vehicles, from industrial and office buildings, and from widely dispersed sources across the state. Colorado has matched California’s standards for increases in sales of electric-powered vehicles, whose energy source is far cleaner than petroleum, but other specifics are lacking. 

Signs warn people away from parking in front of an electric vehicle charging station at the I-70 Diner in Flagler, Colorado, unless they are refueling. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)

Environmentalists and some legislators have criticized the draft roadmap for not having clear programs and firm timelines and deadlines for action. 

The final plan does set out a range of actions and rulemakings for the next two years. Many of them, however, were already on calendars of air, utility and oil and gas regulatory commissions, and some remain to be defined.

Asked what was added to give the roadmap more specific direction since the draft was criticized, Polis pointed to language addressing inequity in climate change impacts and how those can be remedied. The report pledges, for example, to build more equity-focused community outreach into the rulemaking process, and to include equity analysis in reviews such as permitting and siting pollution sources. 

Later Thursday, the governor’s office pointed to other specific emission policies in the report, including examples such as required reductions in vehicle trips by large employers, a rulemaking process that will start this summer.

State Sen. Faith Winter, a Democrat representing Thornton, Northglenn and Westminster, said the roadmap now includes more specific timelines and measurable goals in climate equity work. 

“What’s being released today is a significant step forward,” Winter said. “We need to prioritize equity first and foremost; historically disadvantaged communities have borne the brunt of climate change.” 

Rep. Alex Valdez, a Denver Democrat, said equity goals will include more access to electric vehicles and charging stations, for example, in underserved Denver neighborhoods. “I represent one of the most polluted ZIP codes in the United States, and they’ll be very happy to hear we are taking bold steps.”

Environmental advocates said equity needs are urgent, and plans like the greenhouse gas roadmap don’t include specific, immediate change. 

“Successfully reducing climate pollution and meeting Colorado’s climate goals must be done in a way that is quantifiable, enforceable, and equitable,” Stacy Tellinghuisen, senior climate policy analyst for the environmental group Western Resource Advocates, said in a statement. 

Tellinghuisen said a quick review of the finalized roadmap “still doesn’t appear to meet those criteria. Specifically, we’ve heard from our frontline community partners — and we agree — that the equitable part is missing from the roadmap.” 

MORE: Colorado is behind on targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions. How far should the state push industry to get there?

Achieving the state’s climate action plans “requires engagement and support of disproportionately impacted communities, yet we are still waiting for (the state health department’s) equity framework,” a coalition of conservation advocates said in a release Thursday. “The delay of this framework signals that disproportionately-impacted communities were not sufficiently consulted or centered, and therefore, are unlikely to reap the benefits that could come from the governor’s roadmap.”

The final roadmap, in a marked change, does outline a broad range of legislative actions that need to be taken to help meet the emission reduction goals.

Polis, for example, in his budget up for the legislature’s approval is proposing $40 million for clean energy financing, and $5 million for local governments for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.

Other elements that will need legislative action include setting carbon reduction targets for gas utilities and requiring large commercial buildings to track and reduce emissions.

Colorado officials are emphasizing the climate change effort can make large greenhouse gas reductions while still providing safe, reliable and affordable energy for consumers and industry. Polis on Thursday included the comments of renewable power executive Kevin Smith, whose Lightsource BP is building massive solar power arrays in Pueblo that replace coal-fired power generation

Lightsource BP is finishing the $285 million Bighorn solar array next to the Evraz steel-rail factory in Pueblo, and will soon announce details on another $200 million array there, Smith said. Both the energy arrays and the steel factory are creating hundreds of new jobs, not just because of climate change targets, but because the energy they need will be cheaper. 

“They are expanding the steel mill for rails in part because they now have long-term, cost competitive power,” Smith said.

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