Climate Inaction: Delays and disappointment mark two years of Colorado’s clean-energy push

Policies fall well short of state’s own emissions goals

Gov. Jared Polis speaks with reporter during a press conference on Sept. 29, 2020. (Moe Clark, Colorado Newsline)
This is part 1 of the three-part series “Climate Inaction,” which examines the troubled relationship between Gov. Jared Polis and a landmark climate action law.

Part 2: How Colorado’s landmark emissions law went up in smoke

Part 3: Lawsuits, roadmaps and Colorado’s uncertain clean-energy future

As multimillionaire tech investor and then-Congressman Jared Polis cruised towards victory in the Colorado governor’s race in 2018, extreme drought conditions were testing farmers and ranchers in nearly every corner of the state. Unprecedented wildfires raged across Colorado and the West. A historic hurricane season battered the Gulf Coast, while cities all over the world reported record-breaking summer temperatures. Scientists’ warnings about the need to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions grew more urgent than ever, and a wave of grassroots, youth-led activism ratcheted up the pressure on world leaders to more aggressively confront climate change.

Polis and his fellow Colorado Democrats, propelled by a nationwide “blue wave” to their strongest grip on power within the state in 80 years, pledged to make bold climate action one of their highest priorities.

“We’re going to confront this challenge head-on,” Polis said in an address to lawmakers two days after taking office in January 2019. “Not only because we must, (but) because we also want to take advantage of the huge opportunities associated with being a leader in the growing green energy economy.”

Two years later, extreme drought conditions are testing farmers and ranchers in nearly every corner of the state. Unprecedented wildfires are raging across Colorado and the West. A historic hurricane season is battering the Gulf Coast, while cities all over the world have reported record-breaking summer temperatures. Scientists’ warnings about the need to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions have grown more urgent than ever, and a wave of grassroots, youth-led activism is ratcheting up the pressure on world leaders to more aggressively confront climate change.

And yet in Colorado, as the clock winds down on two years of total Democratic control of state government, many outside experts and advocates have been left bitterly disappointed by the pace and scope of climate policymaking during what they saw as a critical window for swift, sweeping action.

While historic commitments have been made, actual policy changes have been few and far between. Legislation to set statewide emissions targets got bogged down in the Colorado General Assembly and emerged less forceful than advocates wanted. The Air Quality Control Commission, the state panel tasked with implementing the bill, has proceeded slowly, drawing lawsuits from multiple environmental groups. Commissioners who pressed for more aggressive action were rebuffed by state officials, and several of them were replaced by appointees with ties to the fossil-fuel industry in a major shakeup of the commission this summer.

In nearly every case, these obstacles have come from what may seem to many an improbable source: Polis, the self-assured and unorthodox Democrat who made a pledge to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2040 a centerpiece of his 2018 campaign. Even in cases in which Polis has not been directly involved, more than half a dozen stakeholders participating in the state’s climate policymaking process characterized the governor as a frequent elephant in the room, exerting behind-the-scenes pressure on regulators not to stray too far from his preferred approach.

“The AQCC is getting stuck in conflict with the governor,” said Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability for the Aspen Skiing Company and one of the commission’s recently departed members. “He doesn’t want heavy-handed regulation, and that’s the only thing that’s going to get you to these targets.”

As a result, the first half of Polis’s term has been marked by an unlikely, uncomfortable rift between state officials and the environmental community. Mainstream advocacy groups, who expected to work hand-in-hand with the new Democratic administration to craft cutting-edge climate policies, instead find themselves battling for every inch, organizing pressure campaigns and facing off with state regulators in court.

The Pine Gulch Fire north of Grand Junction, ignited by a lightning strike on July 31, is the largest wildfire in Colorado history. (Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team/BLM)

Despite its high stakes, the drama has unfolded quietly, overshadowed by a deadly pandemic, an economic downturn and the 2020 election. Many advocates and lawmakers are reluctant to openly challenge Polis, a confident technocrat who — despite rarely weighing in publicly on the finer points of his administration’s climate strategies — has taken an active, hands-on role in many areas of state policymaking. Citing pending litigation, representatives for Polis declined requests for interviews with the governor and his top climate advisers.

“The fact that Colorado is experiencing two of the three largest wildfires in our state’s history this summer is just one of countless indicators that climate change is a threat to our economy and our way of life, today and for generations to come,” Polis spokesperson Conor Cahill said in a statement.

“The state is taking unprecedented action to confront the climate crisis, and the governor believes this work provides an enormous economic opportunity for Colorado to remain a leader on renewable energy development and in creating more good-paying green jobs,” Cahill continued. “We are focused on the implementation of a variety of emission reduction measures, in addition to developing the next suite of legislative and regulatory actions and incentives necessary to improve our air quality and do our part on climate.”

Even by the state’s own projections, however, the climate policies it has enacted since Polis took office will only result in an annual emissions cut of about 1.6 million tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent, or CO2e, by 2030. That’s only a small fraction of the roughly 65 million tons CO2e in annual emissions reductions that scientists — and the state’s new statutory goals — say that it must achieve within the next decade.

Colorado climate officials insist that they’re on track to meet that target, in large part through collaborative efforts with the private sector and market-driven technological shifts. The AQCC is tentatively scheduled to consider more substantial emissions rules in mid-to-late 2021, and other state agencies and commissions are pursuing climate goals of their own.

A long-awaited policy “roadmap” released last week by the Polis administration outlined a host of “near term actions” for the state to pursue to further reduce emissions. In a statement, Polis called the plan “a significant step forward,” but the draft document — not expected to be finalized until later this year — did little to assuage concerns from environmental groups that state’s approach includes far too few strong, enforceable emissions rules.

“After a year of work, the roadmap is missing the most essential element for progress: concrete regulatory policies, to be proposed swiftly, that taken together are fully capable of guaranteeing climate pollution goes down the requisite amounts,” said Pam Kiely, senior director of regulatory strategy for the Environmental Defense Fund, a D.C.-based advocacy organization.

“There’s certainly no shortage of good intentions,” said Jeremy Nichols, the climate and energy program director for activist group WildEarth Guardians. “But so far, it’s just not adding up to the kind of real progress and real action that’s actually needed to confront the climate crisis here. It seems like the problem is not a lack of ideas, it’s a lack of commitment to action. And that does fall squarely in the governor’s lap.”

The Suncor oil refinery in Commerce City is one of Colorado’s largest sources of air pollution. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

“Are your eyes burning right now? My eyes are really burning.”

Ean Thomas Tafoya stood beside a service road just outside the Phillips 66 Denver Terminal, a fuel distribution facility located just north of city limits. Denver’s skyline loomed faintly in the distance, masked by summertime smog and a layer of haze from wildfires to the west. The smell of asphalt and burnt plastic hung in the air as a line of tanker trucks idled outside the terminal gates, a guttural rumbling over the dull roar of Interstate 270 a few hundred feet away.

Climate change can be a difficult problem to comprehend. Its effects, while increasingly dramatic, unfold slowly, often the product of complex chains of causation not easily grasped in real time. Its causes — the heat-trapping gases emitted into the Earth’s atmosphere by human activity, mostly through the combustion of oil, gas and coal — are literally invisible and so woven into the architecture of the modern world that many of us take them for granted.

But the warming of the planet, and the fossil-fuel economy driving it, are also tangible realities, physical processes that can be seen, sensed and viscerally felt — just not by everyone.

“Where industrial point sources are — wells, infrastructure, all that — is predominantly in low-income and/or communities of color,” said Ariana Gonzalez, Colorado climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “And it’s the same for coal plants and gas plants.”

A new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club shows that low-income people and people of color are more likely to live in areas with high levels of fine particle pollution, known as PM2.5, from transportation. (Courtesy of NRDC)

All over the world, the sprawling industrial complexes required to extract, transport, process and distribute fossil fuels tend to be found in a certain kind of area: economically distressed, historically disadvantaged and home to a high percentage of immigrants and people of color. West Oakland. South Philadelphia. Houston’s Ship Channel. Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley.” These fenceline communities — some call them “sacrifice zones” — are the product of decades, if not centuries, of racial and economic inequality.

In Denver, it’s the city’s north side, along with outlying parts of Commerce City and unincorporated Adams County, where Colorado’s largest concentration of fossil-fuel infrastructure shares a roughly 20-square-mile area with some of the region’s poorest and least white communities.

Growing up in Denver’s Cole neighborhood, Tafoya, an organizer with environmental advocacy group GreenLatinos, could see the smokestack of Xcel Energy’s Cherokee Generating Station from his home. A steady stream of coal trains, which can spew hazardous dust particles, thundered through a nearby railway interchange. His front yard was part of an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site, its soil having been reclaimed to remove toxic metals deposited by the lead smelting plants that operated in the area beginning in the 19th century.

“It becomes normalized to you,” Tafoya said. “Whether it’s the noise pollution, or the air pollution, or the water quality.”

In a new report commissioned by the NRDC and the Sierra Club, analysts collated transportation emissions data with income and demographic figures from census tracts across Colorado, and found a consistent trend: the higher the emissions, the higher the percentage of low-income and non-white residents.

“There are communities that have already been bearing the burden of pollution, in addition to income inequality, racism, all of these things,” Gonzalez said. “There are people who are bearing multiple burdens all at once already.”

Ean Thomas Tafoya, an organizer with advocacy group GreenLatinos, speaks at a youth climate rally on Sept. 25, 2020. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

These disparities are not merely an urban phenomenon. In the mountains, “downvalley” communities home to low-income and immigrant workers in the agricultural and tourism sectors are just as likely, Tafoya said, to feel the impacts of environmental racism. And in rural Weld County on the Eastern Plains, home to 90% of Colorado’s oil production, activists have railed against a drilling project near Bella Romero Academy, a predominantly low-income and Latino elementary school in Greeley; the site was chosen in 2016 after previous plans to drill near a whiter, more affluent school were abandoned.

And residents of these communities aren’t just bearing the brunt of the costs associated with the causes of climate change — increasingly, they’re suffering the worst of its effects, too. Higher temperatures exacerbate health hazards in neighborhoods where air conditioning is rare and which suffer from the urban heat island effect. Warmer, sunnier weather increases the risk of ozone-polluted air. The chronic “hot drought” that has gripped much of Colorado since 2000 — the most severe dry spell the region has experienced since the 16th century — is causing increased stress on water supplies across the state, hitting downvalley communities and small farmers and ranchers the hardest.

“What we’ve seen repeatedly over the last few years is that soils in Colorado were super dry when runoff season came, and that’s why 100% of (normal) snowpack in many places turned into damn near 50% of (normal) runoff, which is shocking,” Brad Udall, a water and climate researcher at Colorado State University, told Newsline in July. “Shocking and disturbing, and unfortunately, probably our future.”

Since shortly after the global spread of coal-powered industrial production in the late 19th century, scientists have correctly predicted that the combustion of fossil fuels would eventually release enough carbon into the atmosphere to dramatically alter the world’s climate. Today, average atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas, have reached roughly 415 parts per million, 46% above pre-industrial levels and higher than any level the Earth has experienced in the last 2.6 million years. As a result, average global temperatures have risen by more than 1 degree Celsius since 1850, causing profound impacts to weather patterns and ecosystems all over the world, including Colorado’s “megadrought.”

For decades, world governments have officially sought to limit warming to a maximum of 2 degrees Celsius, a threshold beyond which climate change would begin to have globally catastrophic effects, with entire regions of the world transformed by heat and drought and many of its major cities inundated by rising sea levels.

But a landmark report released by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in October 2018 — in the final weeks of Colorado’s pivotal midterm elections — became a turning point for climate activism around the world. The IPCC’s report was the most comprehensive assessment to date of the impacts of 1.5 degrees of warming, and it painted a dire picture, concluding that catastrophic climate impacts were already underway, and will continue to accelerate long before the world reaches the 2-degree limit.

“Every extra bit of warming matters, especially since warming of 1.5°C or higher increases the risk associated with long-lasting or irreversible changes, such as the loss of some ecosystems,” said IPCC co-chair Hans-Otto Pörtner.

The report also came with a stark warning: limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius would require cutting global carbon emissions nearly in half by 2030, and to net-zero by midcentury. While such a timeline is technically possible, its authors said, achieving it “would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”

“We show it can be done within laws of physics and chemistry,” Jim Skea, an IPCC co-chair, told the press at the time of the report’s release. “The final tick box is political will.”

In 2018, Colorado Democrats captured the State Senate for the first time in four years, giving the party full control of state government. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

The IPCC’s report, combined with a series of headline-grabbing climate disasters that struck the world in late 2018, set off a global wave of organizing and demonstrations to demand more aggressive climate action, much of it led by young people. A fiery speech from teenage Swedish activist Greta Thunberg to diplomats gathered at a December 2018 U.N. climate summit became a viral sensation. The Sunrise Movement, a U.S. activist group, held sit-ins in the halls of Congress and began agitating for what they called a “Green New Deal.”

In Colorado, hopes were high for the kind of “bold, progressive” change that Polis had promised during his bid for governor. Democrats had captured the state Senate for the first time in four years and expanded their majority in the House, led by a new generation of lawmakers who had campaigned on climate action. House Speaker KC Becker, a Democrat from Boulder, called it her top priority.

“I cannot think of a more important challenge for us to take on than climate change,” Becker said in a speech opening the 2019 legislative session. “We will build a better future by expanding our commitment to renewable energy, giving local communities the tools they need to prepare for the impacts of climate change and creating strong goals to limit carbon pollution.”

House Bill 19-1261, the climate legislation that Becker and other lawmakers began crafting in consultation with environmental groups, aimed to set nation-leading, economy-wide emissions targets that were largely consistent with the science contained in the 2018 IPCC report. Its goals included a 26% cut in emissions by 2025, a 50% cut by 2030 and a 90% cut by 2050.

“The people of Colorado, and the legislators engaging on these issues in 2019, really understood that we have turned a corner with respect to the climate crisis,” said Kiely, of the Environmental Defense Fund. “We’ve got a really short amount of time to make really significant reductions that are in line with what scientists are telling us are needed to avoid the worst impacts.”

But the rollout of HB-1261 hit a snag that caught lawmakers and environmentalists off-guard: Polis didn’t support the concept of the legislation.

“The governor’s office, he’s generally saying, ‘Oh, let’s just see if this happens on its own,’” Becker told the Colorado Independent ahead of the bill’s introduction.

Multiple sources with knowledge of the negotiations over HB-1261 confirmed to Newsline that Polis opposed the bill’s economy-wide emissions targets, even threatening to veto it.

The dispute between two of the state’s top Democrats passed largely unnoticed amid a whirlwind legislative session dominated by other hot-button issues, including a high-stakes battle over Senate Bill 19-181, a package of oil and gas reforms. Multiple sources with knowledge of the negotiations over HB-1261 confirmed to Newsline that Polis opposed the bill’s economy-wide emissions targets, even threatening to veto it.

Both Becker and the governor’s office declined to comment on their disagreement over the bill. In a statement, Cahill said that Polis “was proud to sign HB 19-1261, which was one of a package of 14 of the most ambitious climate and clean energy bills that this state has ever seen.”

In the end, HB-1261 sought a middle ground between strict mandates and voluntary action, setting emissions “goals” and directing the AQCC to implement rules aimed at achieving them. Even by the standards of statutory legalese, the bill’s language is dense and full of qualifiers: “The implementing rules may take into account other relevant laws and rules,” it states, “as well as voluntary actions taken by local communities and the private sector, to enhance efficiency and cost-effectiveness and shall be revised as necessary over time to ensure timely progress toward the 2025, 2030 and 2050 goals.”

Still, climate-action advocates emerged from the legislative session relatively happy with the final version of HB-1261, which passed on party-line votes in both chambers of the legislature. The bill included a strong equity component, directing regulators to identify and protect “disproportionately impacted communities,” and its emissions goals were some of the most ambitious of any state in the country.

Unlike similar bills in some other states, HB-1261 didn’t impose a hard deadline on the AQCC to finalize its regulations. But crucially, a companion bill, Senate Bill 19-096, contained a provision requiring the commission to formally begin a rulemaking process aimed at meeting the state’s new emissions goals by July 1, 2020.

“We ended up with legislative language that created a clear directive to start the process,” Kiely said. “I think the idea was that if you actually just began, and got something concrete on the table, that is ideally going to lead to a timely resolution.”

In effect, HB-1261 punted on some of the most important questions about emissions mandates and enforcement mechanisms, leaving the AQCC to come up with answers. It was an approach that some advocates thought had merit, allowing the panel’s volunteer commissioners to carefully develop rules away from the spotlight — and the swarms of lobbyists — at the Capitol.

KC Becker of Boulder is speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives.

“What I wanted to see in Colorado is a comprehensive, specific and enforceable strategy that makes sure that Colorado is doing its part,” Becker told Newsline in an interview. “And 1261 created the authority for the executive branch to take action.”

Polis signed HB-1261 and SB-96 into law on May 30, 2019, flanked by lawmakers and clean-energy advocates at an event staged in front of an Arvada solar farm. But even as he promised to the assembled crowd to “make sure Colorado is on the cutting edge of the future of clean tech, in all areas,” he quietly issued a signing statement that quickly dashed some advocates’ hopes for swift regulatory action by the AQCC.

“I want to make clear that I expect implementation of cost effective greenhouse gas emission reduction efforts to be an iterative and multi-faceted process including recommended legislative actions over the upcoming years that will span across numerous State agencies,” the governor wrote.

It was a seemingly innocuous statement, but behind the scenes, many of HB-1261’s core supporters interpreted it as an ominous sign of what was to come. The bill had taken Colorado climate policy out of the legislature’s hands, and given the Polis administration broad authority to implement its requirements as it saw fit.

Now they feared that the governor would choose to implement the new law slowly, in small pieces or not at all. And over the next year and a half, they would largely be proven right.

“There was a feeling that there was a sense of alignment between the legislative branch and the executive branch, around the understanding of urgency and boldness that needed to follow the passage of HB-1261,” Nichols said. “But it seems very clear that that alignment doesn’t exist, at least to the extent many legislators thought.”

Tomorrow, in part 2 of “Climate Inaction”: How the implementation of Colorado’s landmark emissions law stalled before a key rulemaking panel.