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Effort to force Colorado to cut greenhouse emissions faster exposes exasperation with Polis administration

“I am highly frustrated where we are now,” Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Vail Democrat, said.

Xcel Energy’s Comanche Generating Station, shown here in a March 7, 2020, photo, is the largest power plant in Colorado. The steam-driven, coal-fueled plant, located in Pueblo, generates 1,410 megawatts of power. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

For more than a year, frustrated Colorado lawmakers and environmental groups have struggled to push the Polis administration to move faster to meet mandated cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Now they are advancing a bill to set emission caps and deadlines — over the objections of the governor. 

The Senate Transportation and Energy Committee moved Senate Bill 200,  which includes the caps and a one-year deadline to get them into rules, on to the finance committee on a 4-3 vote Tuesday, with all Democratic legislators supporting the measure and all Republicans opposing it. 

The legislation was opposed by mining companies, the oil and gas sector, the state’s largest utilities and by the Polis administration.

Supporters of the bill are concerned that the administration’s approach of enacting individual emission rules will not be enough to implement the 2019 legislation, House Bill 1261, that requires cuts in greenhouse gas emissions over 2005 levels of 26% by 2025, 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050.

 “I am highly frustrated where we are now,” said Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Vail Democrat. “Let’s say we’re going to figure it out and do it. Or let’s stop saying we’re going to do it.”

The current bill sets greenhouse gas emission caps for key economic sectors, such as transportation, utilities, and oil and gas, and made March 1, 2022, the deadline to place those caps in new state rules.

It would also levy new fees on industrial emissions of carbon dioxide, and raise the commitment to environmental justice by including adversely impacted communities in rule making and by creating an environmental justice ombudsman.

The lightning rod in the hearing was the rule-making deadline for the Air Quality Control Commission and the caps for economic activities.

House Bill 1261 made the AQCC the lead agency for ensuring the state meets the greenhouse gas reduction targets. 

The commission has been doing individual rule makings — tightening oil and gas emissions, phasing out hydrofluorocarbons, adopting a clean-vehicle standard — but has not developed  a comprehensive regulatory plan.

Sen. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat and one of the bill’s cosponsors, said the concern is that there is a gap between where the state is in the process and where it needs to be to meet the targets.

“To meet that gap, we want to make sure the AQCC is a backstop,” Winter said. “This is not about not trusting the AQCC … We want to empower them.”

The main clash at the hearing was between Donovan and Will Toor, director of the Colorado Energy Office.

Toor told the committee that the Polis administration was opposed to the bill because it would undermine plans under the state Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap, issued in January. 

The roadmap laid out a set of options and initiatives to meet the reduction targets, but did not include deadlines for achieving those reductions.

“The approach required in this bill will require the disruption of the roadmap,” Toor said. It would also “upend” work on five AQCC rule makings. “We have never tried to do rule making on this scale,” he said.

Toor said that doing the rule making and also meeting the bill’s deadline for comprehensive rules by next March exceeds “the bandwidth of the commission and the staff.”

The Polis administration did support the creation of a fee on the first 4,000 tons of carbon emissions to help finance greenhouse gas reduction activities. Such fees are already paid by  businesses that hold emission permits from the state on other regulated pollutants.

MORE: Read more politics and government coverage from The Colorado Sun.

Donovan said that the roadmap was “aspirational” and not legally enforceable, and that the discussion of how to meet the target is exactly the same as it was when House Bill 1261 was passed. 

“Nearly two years later, we are having the same dialogue. That is the reason we, as a General Assembly, need to re-up this law,” Donovan said.

Without firm requirements for cuts in emissions, Donovan said, the roadmap “relies on a lot of goodwill and press releases.”

Even with all new AQCC rules, Toor said, it will take actions by other state agencies, the market and individuals to get the necessary reductions. “We are committed to achieving reductions,” he said, “but we don’t believe we can achieve those reductions through air commission rule makings.”

Environmental groups supporting the bill said it was consistent with House Bill 1261, a AQCC resolution proposing sector-by-sector targets, and with the roadmap.

The bill is “complementary” to the work the administration has already undertaken with no hard caps, said Erin Overturf, deputy director of the clean energy program at Western Resource Advocates.

Overturf pointed to language in the bill giving the AQCC the power to adjust the caps from sector to sector.

But Toor said that while the commission would have the ability to adjust caps between sectors under the bill, the requirement for an overall cap remains. 

The Colorado Mining Association, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, Xcel Energy and Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association were among the business groups and companies that spoke in opposition to the bill.

“Market-based, economywide solutions are the best solutions,” said Lynn Granger, executive director of the oil industry trade group API-Colorado. “Caps would make it hard for the AQCC to consider market-based solutions.”

Under the legislation, Tri-State would be required to submit a clean energy plan to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission showing how it will cut carbon emissions by 80%. Tri-State has already put forward such a plan, but it is voluntary.

Xcel is required to submit a clean energy plan under legislation passed in 2019.

Organized labor leaders, Rich Meisinger, business manager of Local 111 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and Gary Arnold, business manager of Denver Pipefitters Local 208, also spoke in opposition

Arnold said the accelerated carbon dioxide emissions cuts for utilities envisioned under the bill for 2035 and 2040 posed a risk to jobs and a workable transition for utility industry employees. Those accelerated reductions for 2035 and 2040 were removed from the bill.

Winter pointed out that the sector-by-sector caps were adopted from an Air Quality Control Commission resolution, one that Arnold, a member of the commission, had voted for. Why, Winter asked, did he vote in favor?

“I believe in the goals,” Arnold said. “That is why I voted for the resolution.”

“This is meant to put those goals in statute,” Winter said.

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