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Colorado wants big companies to attack climate change by getting their employees to ditch car commutes

Colorado’s Air Pollution Control Division wants businesses with more than 100 workers to start charging for parking, provide shuttles from transit stops and allow more working from home.

A row of Tesla cars are connected to Tesla electric car charging stations located in the Southeast parking lot at Colorado Mills shopping mall on April 8, 2021 in Lakewood, Colorado. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Colorado businesses in the state’s high-ozone areas that host more than 100 employees would have to limit the number of workers commuting alone in cars to 75% of their workforce starting in 2022 and 60% by 2024, according to greenhouse gas and ozone reduction rules drawn up by state air pollution control staff. 

Those large employers would also have to appoint an official transportation coordinator and eliminate parking subsidies or start charging for currently-free parking under the detailed rule proposal, considered a key part of state emissions reduction goals. Staff of the Air Pollution Control Division are asking the appointed Air Quality Control Commission to set hearings and a vote on the new transportation rules by late summer. 

Employees who use zero-emission vehicles, such as fully-electric cars, would be exempt under the draft rules, released Thursday night. The draft offers a number of potential employer strategies that could qualify as good-faith efforts to meet the rules, including solutions such as sponsoring shuttles to nearby transit stops, or “flexwork” policies allowing more freedom on when and how often employees need to be at the workplace. 

It’s not clear from the draft rules what enforcement mechanisms state government will have to push large companies to come under the caps. The rules have reporting and recordkeeping requirements, but also say employers that continue to miss the goals can file “alternative compliance plans.”

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“We should look at other places that have these kinds of rules in place already and see if the self-enforcing type of strategy works, and if not, we might need to consider something else,” said Danny Katz, director of the environment and consumer advocacy group CoPIRG. 

The workplaces will have to plan for their proposed commuting solutions by first conducting extensive surveys of how their employees currently get to and from work, according to the draft. The rules’ accompanying economic analysis says there are about 877,000 employees at about 2,800 employers of over 100 people in the 10-county area that has ozone problems. 

Trade and marketing associations for large employers said Friday they either had not had time to study the draft, or that their member employers had not yet taken a position on the proposals from the air quality division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. 

Environmental groups that contributed comments during the draft stages said the rules look promising, but want to hear more about how they will be enforced. They also said the narrower questions of workplace commuting need to be connected to more investment in mass transit and other policies in order to make significant cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. 

“We basically need to use every tool in our tool belt to tackle climate change and this is one tool,” Katz said. “It will allow us to help reduce the amount of pollution that’s coming from our transportation sector. It’s a small amount, but it’s meaningful and important.”

The time is right to work on commuting patterns, Katz said, since both employer and employee habits changed radically during the COVID-19 pandemic, and people using transit systems may be open to change.

Transportation is one of the major sectors of greenhouse gas emissions that has yet to be challenged by bold new regulation of the kind impacting the utility industry, and the air quality commission and other entities are tasked with writing new rules in the coming year. Gov. Jared Polis’ Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction Roadmap earlier this year set goals of reducing overall emissions by 26% by 2025 and 50% by 2030. 

Reducing car trips would also help Colorado in its quest to come back into compliance with EPA regulations on ground-level ozone, which causes extensive respiratory problems. The EPA has periodically ratcheted down the levels of ozone allowed in the northern Front Range where federal ozone caps are periodically breached. While Colorado has made some progress in clean air, the improvements have not met the EPA’s lower limits. 

Ten Denver metro and northern Front Range counties have been out of compliance with ozone limits since 2012. The state’s nonattainment areas are likely to slip into the next-lower category of “severe” nonattainment in the next year, triggering more requirements for control programs. 

The APCD staff’s economic analysis accompanying the proposed regulations project the commuting rules to cut 752,000 tons of carbon dioxide by 2025. By comparison, state officials are currently considering a staff recommendation for a renewed permit for the Suncor Energy refinery in Commerce City that would allow the plant to emit about 866,000 tons a year of greenhouse gases. 

Read more transportation stories from The Colorado Sun.

The staff analysis puts the annual cost per employer of meeting the goals in a broad range, from $7,200 to $811,643 each. 

Environmental advocates will keep pushing for additional rules or spending that creates more efficient and consumer-friendly public transit as a bigger part of the emissions solution, Katz said. 

“One of the biggest ways to reduce transportation pollution is to move people more effectively, more efficiently, and we can do that with transit,” he said. 

RTD, the public transit provider for about 3 million people in the Denver metro area, cut service by about 40% during the pandemic and has not fully restored service levels, though it has increased frequency on some busy essential worker corridors. 

During upcoming hearings, advocates will also push for more ambitious caps on single-occupancy commuting. Katz and other observers have noted the large increase in telecommuting and flex work hours driven by the pandemic, and believe many companies are already lower than the 75% cap. They say the state could have a higher impact by setting the starting points even lower. 

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