General Assembly Sends Greenhouse Gas Bill to Polis

Clear Denver skyline compared to a greenhouse gas emission clouded one
Photo courtesy of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

Colorado lawmakers acted Tuesday evening to toughen the state’s apparatus for confronting the climate crisis, enacting a compromise bill that will establish enforceable greenhouse gas emission limits for three significant components of the economy. The legislation also aims to address disparities in environmental risks experienced by some communities.

HB 21-1266 is the result of lengthy negotiations between the General Assembly’s ruling party and libertarian-curious Gov. Jared Polis, who has been reluctant to agree that the state’s Air Quality Control Commission should have authority to enforce pollutant limits for atmosphere-warming gases. Polis, a Democrat elected in 2018, told the Colorado Springs Gazette’s editorial board on April 27 that the traditional regulatory approach amounted to giving the AQCC the power to “nearly destroy or assault our entire economy.” 

Polis insists that his administration’s Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap, finalized in January, is generally sufficient to transition the state away from fossil fuels. The Roadmap, said Polis at a press conference announcing its release, “is by far the most ambitious and expansive planning document that Colorado has ever produced on climate change.” Environmental advocacy organizations did not see it that way. “There are a lot of assumptions in the roadmap,” Stacy Tellinghuisen, senior climate policy analyst for Western Resource Advocates, told the Colorado Sun in January. “They are counting a lot of emission reductions that aren’t assured.” 

Legislators and environmental protection advocates, continuing a push to impose a system of accountability on the Roadmap approach, forcefully urged Polis to moderate his view. “As we continue to emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere over the next decade, and even over the next 15 few years, we will continue to exacerbate the climate damages we are already seeing and increase the risk of catastrophic disruption,” says the legislative declaration to the bill. “Therefore, early action to reduce the pollutants that contribute to climate change, thereby reducing overall atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, is essential.”

Majority Democrats, led by Reps. Dominique Jackson and Mike Weissman of Aurora and Sens. Faith Winter of Westminster and Janet Buckner of Aurora, advanced the proposal as a way to build accountability into the state’s existing statutory greenhouse gas reduction targets. Those goals, which were enshrined in the state’s legal code by a 2019 law, require lowering of climate-changing pollution of 26% by 2025, 50% by 2030, and 90% by 2050, relative to 2005 levels. According to a Jan. 6 report in the Colorado Sun, that translates to 36.4 million tons less carbon dioxide equivalent emissions by 2025, an additional reduction of 33.6 tons by 2030, and 56 million more tons beyond that eliminated by 2050.

Pam Kiely, senior vice president for U.S. climate policy at the Environmental Defense Fund, said she thinks the final product does give the AQCC the tools it needs to effectively address greenhouse gas pollution. On the other hand, she said, the legislature will need to again revisit the state’s framework for bringing down atmosphere-warming pollution. “The state is incredibly far away from meeting the required 2025 reduction targets,” she said. 

The state is not only a long way from meeting those statutory goals, enacted in 2019, but is also not on track to achieve them. According to a Dec. 2020 analysis by the Environmental Defense Fund, Colorado is expected now to achieve a 7-15% reduction by 2025 and a 19-26% drawdown by 2030. “While the further direction on industrial and oil and gas sector emissions represents some progress, a huge responsibility remains for the Air Quality Control Commission to fully and comprehensively address their clear obligation under existing Colorado law to cut pollution at the pace and scale consistent with scientific recommendations,” Kiely said in a statement. 

The electricity generation, manufacturing, and oil and gas sectors will be subjected to pollution caps on a timeline set by the measure. Utilities not already required to file a Clean Energy Plan with the Public Utilities Commission and that emit significant quantities of warming gases will be required to cut those emissions by 80% by 2030. By Jan. 1, 2022 the Air Quality Control Commission must commence efforts to adopt regulations that force reductions of 36% by 2025 and 60% by 2030 from the state’s fossil fuel infrastructure and separately adopt rules that force factory owners to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by at least 20% by 2030, with a mandate for significant lowering of those discharges by 2025. 

To help AQCC and the state’s Air Quality Control Division to pay for the new regulatory processes, the bill imposes permit fees on greenhouse gas polluters. The agencies will be required to consider the social cost of carbon, a measurement of the damage carbon dioxide emissions cause that is also required by the federal government under a January executive order by President Joe Biden, when analyzing the economic impact of regulations.  

HB 21-1266 does not address greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, the largest contributor to atmospheric warming, and buildings. Nationwide, residential and commercial structures cause about 30% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. 

“While this is progress, we have unfinished business and Colorado still remains off track from meeting its climate goals,” said Jessica Gelay, a spokesperson for Western Resource Advocates, a Boulder-based organization that spearheaded efforts to enact the prospective new law. “We will continue to work with the state’s Air Quality Control Commissioners and lawmakers to close the emission reduction gap and preserve a habitable climate for Coloradans.”

Kiely emphasized the urgency of dealing with vehicle emissions. “Transportation is a really significant part of the equation that we’ve got to tackle in a binding way [and] that assures emissions go down,” she said, suggesting that AQCC should consider Advanced Clean Trucks standards, like those now in effect in California, and a Low Carbon Fuels Standard similar to those in place both in California and its northern neighbor, Washington, to lower greenhouse gas discharges from tailpipes. “There are tools that regulators can deploy,” she said. “The only thing that’s standing in the way is the lack of political will to clean up the pollution that we know is causing these devastating climate effects.”

Polis’ administration has encouraged more electric vehicle use in Colorado. In 2019, the governor signed an executive order that pushes state agencies to build more charging stations and convert the government’s fleet to battery-powered machines. According to a 2020 update from the Colorado Energy Office, the administration wants more than 900,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2030. The AQCC also adopted a zero-emission vehicle standard in Aug. 2019 after Polis ordered the panel to do so. 

Environmental justice goals incorporated into the bill include provisions aimed at routing financial penalties imposed on polluters back to impacted communities for mitigation projects, additional modeling and monitoring for facilities located in areas disproportionately affected by air pollution, and development of a statewide environmental justice plan. The bill also creates an Environmental Justice Advisory Board and an ombudsperson dedicated to the issue at AQCC. 

Numerous research reports, including a paper published in Science’s April issue and a 2015 study, have documented a U.S. and global pattern of inequity in exposure to pollution faced by ethnic and racial minorities.

“That’s the big step forward” provided by the legislation, Kiely said. It “is really centering equity and justice considerations in our environmental planning and regulatory policies.”

The governor’s office has not said when Polis is expected to sign the bill.

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