Breathe in. Breathe out. Take a moment and think about the air around you. Is it stuffy or crisp? Hot or cold? Clean or dirty?
The quality of the air around us is something we probably take for granted, but for thousands of our neighbors right here in Colorado that isn’t an option. Our reliance on fossil fuels has led to extreme climate and environmental justice issues in our state — not to mention higher rates and prices. There are many environmental offenders across Colorado, such as the Suncor Refinery in Commerce City, the Comanche coal-fired station in Pueblo, and the Arapahoe generating station in south Denver — all placed in historically low-income communities.
The Arapahoe station alone spewed over 60,000 pounds of dangerous nitrogen oxide in 2022, according to the Environmental Protection Agency data. State health records show the areas around gas plants have higher asthma rates and overall worse health outcomes.
I spoke to one mother in the area who told me she was not sure if it was safe to let her child play outside on bad air quality days. College View Elementary School is just a mile away from the Arapahoe station. How many children go to that school every single day and breathe in the toxic fumes? What about the elderly? Those with asthma or other respiratory conditions?
Coloradans are asking for climate action and cleaner air, but instead the state is slacking on its goals while families and businesses are racked with extremely high energy bills associated with gas, and more dangerously high levels of ozone in our state with our own regulators underestimating emissions from oil and gas drilling and fracking.
That ozone gets breathed in by you and me. Our pets and local wildlife breathe it and it damages plant life. Gas pollution is deposited in the surrounding ecosystems, seriously damaging the beauty and integrity of our state’s resources. Natural gas, which is really just fracked methane gas, is touted by oil and gas companies as being safer than coal-fired plants, but is it really? What does “safe” really mean when the very air you breathe is still full of dangerous pollutants? When is it ever safe to breathe in tiny particles that permanently damage lung tissue?
If Xcel Energy gets its way, the social, environmental, and human-health ramifications will continue for a long time, thanks to its plans to expand gas pipelines and continue using harmful gas power plants. The more the company invests in new gas infrastructure, the more it locks customers into paying off those billion dollar long-term investments for decades — and this is when scientists warn of dire consequences of continued fossil fuel use. Colorado has set a goal of transitioning toward 100% renewable energy by 2040. Ratepayer investments should be put into clean power, not decades-long gas investments that will have health, environmental, and economic consequences for everyone in the state.
At the end of 2022, the company sent an email notice to customers giving a heads up about “significant increases” in bills. Few of us realized that meant a doubling and tripling of costs. Xcel’s email admits methane gas burning in our homes and powerplants was the cause and by the new year, the company celebrated a record $1.74 billion profit.
When asked in a recent interview why Xcel is able to make such large profits while customers suffer from high prices, company President Robert Kenney deflected. He said Xcel wasn’t making any extra profit from increases in wholesale gas prices. This is only partly true. Xcel does make a profit from expanding gas infrastructure, which Kenney called “safe, affordable and reliable” multiple times.
Xcel Energy is a for-profit company and the dominant energy supplier in the state, which means we have little choice over where our energy comes from and are locked into the rates we are dealt. So why would they want to lower rates for customers like you and me? The company is signaling it doesn’t want to take the time, money, and effort to create a pathway off the gas system. We should not — cannot — stand by and let these decades of racial, environmental, and social damages to our state continue to grow.
It’s time for all of us to step up and demand changes. Governor Jared Polis, lawmakers, and the state Public Utilities Commission all have regulatory power over Xcel Energy and they should be beholden to the needs of everyday people, especially those that are low-income and suffer from the unaccounted costs of pollution. We can call our lawmakers, our city councils, and send comments to the commission demanding a change to the system, to think beyond limited energy assistance.
A 100% clean energy future and affordable, sustainable communities are not mutually exclusive. But that may not be in the interest of mega-corporations like Xcel. If the company won’t make a plan to move past its most polluting resource, then we need to leave it no choice.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Take a moment and think about the air around you. Now, let’s get to work.
Trevor Slansky, of Denver, is lead volunteer on the Colorado Sierra Club’s Clean Energy Campaign.
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