Colorado officials won’t pass rules cutting greenhouse gas emissions from large manufacturers until 2023, once again disappointing environmental advocates who say mandatory targets for 2025 and 2030 are slipping out of sight.
Last spring, the Air Pollution Control Division had rulemaking for the next round of industrial emissions cuts planned for 2022. Environmental groups say reining in greenhouse emissions in that sector will also cut harmful local pollutants like nitrogen oxide and ozone.
But state air quality officials say that schedule was superseded by a new law passed last summer that gives them more sweeping powers to cut emissions by 20%, and that even if new rules are not passed until 2023, they will be more effective overall.
“The good news is we’ve got a specific direction and greater authority now to address this sector, and I think that’s the important point,” said Clay Clarke, climate change unit supervisor at the state Air Pollution Control Division.
The state’s self-imposed deadlines for cutting emissions and making progress on environmental justice are coming up fast, environmental groups say — including 26% cuts to greenhouse emissions from a 2015 baseline by 2025, and 50% by 2030. Even industrial rules passed in 2023 would take some time after that to take full effect.
Change needs to happen faster “both from a carbon perspective, but also from the other air pollution that many of these facilities are spewing out in their neighboring communities,” said Stacy Tellinghuisen, climate policy manager for the nonprofit Western Resource Advocates. “And it’s the cumulative emissions between now and 2030 that matter from the perspective of our climate. So we can’t wait until 2029.”
Advocates for faster rulemaking noted the early March update from the United Nations climate panel, detailing accelerating climate change impacts on the environment and human health.
“Why are we delaying when the science is calling for moving faster?” said Ean Tafoya, Colorado director for GreenLatinos. In the past year, state regulators have put off rulemaking on cleaner commuting at large employers, and have put off a much-anticipated Advanced Clean Trucks rule until 2023.
“These delays are becoming a pattern on the public health needs that my community has been asking for,” Tafoya said.
Colorado has chosen to take on its largest greenhouse gas emitters in various phases. Utilities, whose coal and gas-fired power plants top the lists of greenhouse gas tonnage, are pledged through the Public Utilities Commission to cut emissions 80% by 2030. The largest power plants in Colorado emit annual greenhouse gases in the millions of tons.
In late 2021, the Air Quality Control Commission passed rules addressing four of the next largest industrial polluters in Colorado that are considered energy intensive and trade exposed. These four facilities — a steel plant in Pueblo and three Front Range cement-making plants — are exempt from 20% across the board cuts because of the competitors who would take their business if pollution control costs rose too high. Instead, they must undergo audits to prove they are using the best available emissions control technology, and then cut 5% from there.
The next phase of rulemaking in dispute centers on two dozen or so large industrial facilities that emit more than about 25,000 tons a year and include the Suncor Energy oil refinery, a semiconductor plant, and more. State officials say House Bill 1266 last year, known as the Environmental Justice Disproportionate Impacted Community Act, will eventually make more meaningful greenhouse gas reductions by allowing them to require 20% cuts across the whole industrial sector by 2030.
But advocates say the original greenhouse gas goals for the state passed by the 2019 legislature afforded state regulators the same authority, and an industrial rule pushed into 2023 will mean four more years of accumulating pollution.
The 2019 law “provided the AQCC with the authority and the responsibility to establish robust targets for industrial entities, along with all polluters in the state,” Tellinghuisen said.
“We feel that this is an incredibly urgent crisis that’s here now, and that we should be doing as much as we can as quickly as we can to reduce emissions,” said Alex DeGolia, Colorado director of legislative and regulatory affairs for the Environmental Defense Fund. “Whether or not it was formerly on the air commission’s calendar or intended to be finalized this year, the state needs to be moving as quickly as possible.”
State officials say they are systematically making rules in a series of categories that are already having an impact on overall emissions. Utilities are closing coal-fired power plants in favor of renewable energy. Commissioners have passed regulations on intensive greenhouse gas multipliers in hydrofluorocarbons used in refrigeration. The AQCC and the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission have tightened methane and other carbon emissions from oil production.
With the next set of industrial rules for 2023, Clarke said, “we are building something that’s going to have a very broad reach. It’s going to touch lots of different sub sectors, everything from wallboard to semiconductors, and it’s going to take some time to get it right.”
Legislators and advocates who worry about the state meeting its own climate change deadlines are moving to give regulators more incremental targets. Denver Democrat Sen. Chris Hansen’s Senate Bill 138 would add emissions cuts benchmarks of 40% by 2028 and 75% by 2040 to existing law.
The bill also takes some rulemaking on other specific pollution items out of the hands of regulators by giving absolute deadlines: Ending sale of two-cycle engine polluters like gas-powered lawn mowers in northern Front Range counties would take effect Jan. 1, 2030.