Colorado’s greenhouse gas rules are still a year or more away

Frustration mounts over slow pace of implementing landmark climate bill

Light fills the dome of the Colorado State Capitol on June 11, 2020. (Andy Bosselman for Colorado Newsline)

Clean-energy experts, environmentalists, community advocates and state officials have a long list of ideas about how Colorado can ramp up its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and tackle climate change — but it will likely be a while before regulators implement any of them.

Members of Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission held a special subcommittee meeting on July 16 to discuss how they’ll achieve the new statewide emissions targets set by House Bill 19-1261, the landmark climate legislation passed by lawmakers at the state Capitol last year.

“We wanted to have some more in-depth discussion about prioritizing various sector-based strategies in order to meet the greenhouse gas reduction goals in statute,” said AQCC administrator Trisha Oeth.

When it comes to climate policy, however, discussing strategies is just about all the AQCC — a nine-member panel of part-time, volunteer commissioners appointed by the governor — will be doing for the foreseeable future. More than a year after the passage of HB-1261, the enactment of the commission’s first major set of greenhouse-gas rules is still a year or more away. Only two commissioners participated in Thursday’s subcommittee meeting, where they heard from independent experts and advocates, along with officials from the Colorado Energy Office and the Air Pollution Control Division.

The meeting did little to diminish a growing sense among environmentalists of exasperation with the pace and scope of the climate policies being pursued by Gov. Jared Polis’ administration.

“Candidly, the hearing was pretty frustrating and disappointing,” said Stacy Tellinghuisen, a senior climate policy analyst with Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates. “There were a number of different policies that were discussed and presented by outside experts, and through stakeholder comments, and questions posed by commissioners — and it seemed like with almost every policy, the Division and the Energy Office had a number of arguments for why it wasn’t doable in Colorado. And I think that that’s disconcerting.”

Major changes will be necessary

Signed into law by Polis in May 2019, HB-1261 set a series of targets for Colorado’s overall greenhouse gas emissions levels — a 26% reduction by 2025, a 50% reduction by 2030, and a 90% reduction by 2050 — and tasked the AQCC with implementing rules to “ensure timely progress toward” those goals.

Colorado’s emissions have declined slightly since peaking around 2010, according to a report released by regulators last year, but are nowhere near on track to meet the goals set forth in HB-1261. There’s unanimous agreement among state officials and clean-energy experts that major policy changes will be necessary to bring emissions into compliance with the new law, especially in the transportation and heating sectors, which have lagged behind even as Colorado’s electricity supply has gotten significantly cleaner.

Colorado’s greenhouse emissions must fall sharply to meet the targets set by House Bill 19-1261. (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment)

But even as the initial 2025 deadline looms, such regulations could still be years away from taking effect. At Thursday’s subcommittee meeting, commissioners and APCD staff acknowledged that they don’t plan to initiate major greenhouse-gas rulemakings until next year, with a set of transportation sector regulations expected by July and another relating to building energy efficiency and heating tentatively scheduled for December.

That’s a far slower process than the one imagined by many advocates of HB-1261 when it became law last year. In a separate piece of legislation, Senate Bill 19-096, lawmakers directed the AQCC to improve the state’s emissions monitoring and to propose rules by July 1, 2020, “that would cost-effectively allow the state to meet its greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals.”

“We expected a comprehensive rulemaking by July 2020,” Tellinghuisen said. “That’s what’s in the statute, so it was surprising to see the administration flout that deadline.”

One environmental group, Santa Fe-based WildEarth Guardians, has gone so far as to sue the Polis administration and the AQCC over its failure to propose such rules.

“Guardians seeks to compel Defendants’ timely compliance with this deadline,” reads the group’s lawsuit, filed in Denver District Court on July 9. “Defendants’ failure to move forward on implementing the state’s mandatory climate response by publishing the required notice of proposed rulemaking by the statutory deadline is arbitrary and capricious, and an unlawful withholding of required agency action under the State Administrative Procedure Act.”

Administration officials, however, dispute the claim that the July 2020 deadline in SB-96 applies to the greenhouse-gas targets in HB-1261. In a letter to lawmakers upon signing the two bills in May 2019, Polis wrote that he expected the state’s implementation of emissions regulations “to be an iterative and multi-faceted process … over the upcoming years.”

Lack of political will

WildEarth Guardians’ lawsuit brings to a head the frustrations among environmental groups that have gradually mounted over the last year, as the slow pace of the AQCC’s climate rulemaking process has become clear.

In a rare display of unity in February, a wide range of advocacy organizations — from hardline anti-fracking groups, like Colorado Rising, to more moderate voices, like the Environmental Defense Fund — urged the commission to “take immediate, urgent action to put Colorado on track” to meet its new goals. But despite continued pressure from outside groups and even from commissioners themselves, regulators with the APCD aren’t much closer to proposing new rules than they were nearly six months ago.

“The (commissioners) are all in agreement that they need to do something, and that things should be moving more quickly,” said Jeremy Nichols, director of WildEarth Guardians’ climate and energy program. “And yet this commission can only act if they’re given recommendations to act upon by the Air Pollution Control Division. It’s the administration and their agency that seem to lack the political will to make things happen.”

Among the AQCC commissioners who have pressed for more aggressive action is Elise Jones, who was appointed by Polis to the AQCC in 2019 and also serves on the Boulder County Board of Commissioners. If the AQCC won’t enact major greenhouse-gas rules until next July, Jones said during Thursday’s subcommittee hearing, it should plan on making those rules as ambitious as possible.

“Right now it would seem like we’re headed for a transportation rulemaking in a year, and that we should load it up with all the transportation stuff that we’re going to need to get done,” she said.

In discussing policies for the AQCC to consider adopting, commissioners heard presentations from representatives of clean-energy organizations like the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project and the Rocky Mountain Institute, who outlined a wide variety of potential emissions-reducing measures, including many that have already been successfully implemented in other states. Ideas discussed included strengthening the state’s existing rules that mandate the sales of electric vehicles; requiring municipalities to adopt building codes that improve energy efficiency; and phasing out the use of natural-gas heating systems.

But they also heard plenty of caution from administration officials, who threw cold water on some suggestions and were noncommittal on others. When discussion turned to policies to regulate building emissions, commissioners were encouraged to wait and see what the 2021 legislative session brings.

“I would suggest holding it and seeing what comes out of the Legislature,” said John Putnam, director of environmental programs at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which oversees the APCD. “I think the chances of the Legislature asking for something … are pretty high, and I think it makes sense to reserve that space knowing that we need some further strategies in this area.”

Opportunity is ‘slipping away’

Another constraint on the AQCC’s efforts to develop climate policies has been the lack of a comprehensive “roadmap” still under development by the Colorado Energy Office, which, when completed, will outline potential emissions-reducing strategies in greater detail. AQCC commissioners aren’t slated to be briefed on the report’s conclusions until October, more than a year and a half after HB-1261’s passage. In the eyes of many climate advocates, it’s an unacceptable delay.

“We should’ve been looking at these policies and talking about them at the commission over the past year, even while the roadmap was under development,” said Tellinghuisen. “That’s water under the bridge, but we need to move forward quickly now, and frankly, we can’t wait until July 2021 to do a single-sector rulemaking.”

“The problem here isn’t the lack of good ideas or concrete policy recommendations,” Nichols said. “There’s a huge shortcoming when it comes to the administration giving the (AQCC) the tools and the ideas to act upon. If the administration is still going to be of the mind that they’re not going to give the commission anything anytime soon, it’s not going to change the pace of things.”

As the months go by, climate activists fear that a crucial opportunity to achieve the necessary emissions cuts is rapidly slipping away. Their hopes for aggressive climate action were high when Democrats took full control of state government in 2018, led by Polis, who campaigned on a promise of 100% renewable electricity by 2040. But the centerpiece of their climate efforts, HB-1261, has proven only as strong as the governor is willing to make it.

“The legislation that was adopted a year ago was really visionary and leading legislation,” Tellinghuisen said. “And I think the administration has undertaken some efforts to date, but they’re not enough. Without taking action that matches the ambition and the urgency that’s required here, Colorado can’t claim to be a climate leader. We’re still waiting to see the action that is commensurate with this challenge.”