Showdown over climate policy between Polis, environmental groups likely with new bill

Senate Bill 200 would require state regulators to adopt rules the governor has opposed

Xcel Energy's coal-fired Comanche Generating Station in Pueblo is shown on Jan. 19, 2019. It's the largest power plant in the state, capable of generating 1,410 megawatts of power. (Mike Sweeney/Special to Colorado Newsline)

The latest battle in a long-running dispute between Gov. Jared Polis and top Democrats in the legislature over state greenhouse gas regulations is shaping up at the Capitol.

Senate Bill 21-200, introduced on Monday night by State Sen. Faith Winter and other Democratic lawmakers, would direct state air-quality regulators to carry out what many environmental advocates consider the unfinished business of House Bill 19-1261, the landmark climate change legislation that Democrats passed two years ago.

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The implementation of that bill by the state’s Air Quality Control Commission, members of which are appointed by the governor, has left many advocates of more aggressive climate action confused and disappointed. Critics say that the Polis administration’s strategy for achieving HB-1261’s ambitious emissions goals (including a 50% cut by 2030) relies too heavily on voluntary or incentive-driven action by the private sector, rather than strict emissions limits and other enforceable regulations. Multiple environmental groups have sued the AQCC for failing to comply with the new law.

The Polis administration has maintained that it’s in full compliance with HB-1261, arguing that a combination of current regulations, private-sector commitments and further regulatory action over the next several years will be enough to put the state on a path towards the HB-1261 targets without quantified emissions controls. The new language in SB-200, however, leaves little room for doubt about what kind of regulations lawmakers want the AQCC to enact.

“It is declared to be the policy of this state that the commission shall adopt rules, including emission control regulations, that are sufficient to achieve quantifiable and enforceable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions consistent with the climate goals (in state law),” the bill reads.

SB-200 would enshrine into law sector-specific emissions limits based on those outlined in the Polis administration’s Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap, a planning document finalized by the Colorado Energy Office earlier this year. By March 1, 2022, the AQCC would be required to adopt rules to “ensure” that those limits aren’t exceeded.

A wide-ranging coalition of environmental groups, including Conservation Colorado, the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund, applauded the introduction of SB-200 in a press release on Tuesday.

“We are excited to see this bill introduced,” Jessica Gelay, Colorado government affairs manager for Boulder-based environmental group Western Resource Advocates, said in a statement to Newsline. “It will help Colorado reduce emissions that drive climate change and will put us on track to reach our climate pollution reduction goals, the first of which is in 2025.”

But Polis’ office said that the governor remains opposed to the regulatory approach outlined in the bill.

“The legislation would contradict many of the ambitious strategies in the roadmap, conflict with the existing rulemaking calendar, apply sector-specific caps we have previously indicated we are not supportive of, and undermine the state’s all-of-government approach to meeting our ambitious policy goals,” a spokesperson for Polis said in a statement.

Need for resources

Colorado’s total emissions of climate-warming greenhouse gases have declined somewhat since peaking around 2010, according to state estimates, but remain far above the levels that scientists say are necessary for governments around the world to achieve within the next 10 years to avoid the worst results of climate change. While emissions from electricity generation are poised to continue falling dramatically by 2030, other sources, including the transportation and buildings sectors, have proven much more difficult to address.

Democratic state Sen. Faith Winter, from Colorado’s 24th District. (Colorado General Assembly photo)

“We’ve seen from the electric utilities that our state can achieve meaningful emission reductions when we send businesses the right signals and pass forward-thinking policies,” Gelay said. “By supporting the plan laid out by the governor’s GHG Pollution Reduction Roadmap, this legislation will help drive the necessary reductions across other sources of pollution in Colorado.”

In addition to enforcing emissions limits, SB-200 would close what environmental advocates say is a loophole in existing law; by classifying greenhouse gases as a “regulated pollutant,” the bill would allow the AQCC to collect annual ​​Air Pollutant Emission Notice, or APEN, fees from certain polluters, which supporters say will provide badly needed resources for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s climate programs.

The bill also contains provisions relating to environmental justice, a focus for many environmental groups who say that low-income people, people of color and other vulnerable communities have long faced disproportionate impacts from climate change and fossil fuel pollution.

“In Colorado, frontline communities are bearing the brunt of the climate crisis,” Ean Thomas Tafoya, an activist with environmental group GreenLatinos, said in a statement. “It is past time that we protect the people and respect the science. It shouldn’t take lawsuits and legislation to do the right thing.”

The Polis administration on Tuesday expressed openness to some parts of the bill, but stressed that the governor — who threatened to veto HB-1261 during negotiations over that bill in 2019 — remains opposed to strict emissions caps.

“While there are elements in the bill — like an expanded focus on environmental justice and new resources for the department tasked with a large portion of our climate work that we would be supportive of — the hard caps are something we simply will not support,” said a Polis spokesperson.

“The Polis administration has done a great job outlining the greenhouse gas roadmap emissions plan,” Winter said during a Tuesday press availability. “And we’ve repeatedly heard that there aren’t enough resources, so I think one of the most significant parts of this bill is providing those resources to CDPHE through the APEN fees.”

“It’s not meant to say they aren’t doing their job,” Winter added. “It’s meant to give them the ability to meet the goals that they’ve outlined.”

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