Senate committee advances climate bill opposed by Gov. Polis

Proposed law aims to strengthen enforcement of greenhouse gas targets set in 2019

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)

Colorado lawmakers on Tuesday night advanced a major piece of climate-change legislation after a lengthy committee hearing that put on full display a long-simmering conflict between Gov. Jared Polis and top Democrats in the state Legislature.

“We feel like the legislation we have passed has not been implemented,” state Sen. Faith Winter told Will Toor, executive director of the Colorado Energy Office, in a hearing of the Senate Transportation and Energy Committee. “That’s why we’re here today.”

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Winter is a lead sponsor of Senate Bill 21-200, which would require Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission to more strongly enforce a series of greenhouse gas emissions targets set by a law that Democratic legislators passed in 2019. It would also increase fees on polluters and establish a new environmental-justice advisory board.

After more than five hours of testimony, lawmakers on the Transportation and Energy committee advanced the bill on a 4-3 vote.

“We need to address climate change right now,” Winter said prior to the vote. “We cannot afford to miss the mark on the goals that we set as a legislature.”

The bill follows nearly two years of mounting frustration from environmental groups over a lack of action by the AQCC to enforce the emissions goals outlined by House Bill 19-1261. The bill targets a 26% cut in statewide emissions by 2025, a 50% cut by 2030 and and a 90% cut by 2050.

The Polis administration says it’s confident that the 2025 and 2030 targets can be met through a combination of upcoming AQCC rulemakings, regulatory efforts by other state agencies and voluntary actions by the private sector. It’s consistently opposed comprehensive or sector-specific emissions limits enforced through the AQCC, preferring instead what it calls an “iterative” and “whole-of-government” approach.

“The administration is committed to achieving these reductions,” Toor told lawmakers on Wednesday. “We simply don’t believe that we can achieve those reductions, in every case, through (AQCC) rulemakings.”

But despite the administration’s assurances and a detailed “roadmap” released by Toor’s agency earlier this year, environmental advocates and many of the lawmakers who passed HB-1261 two years ago remain troubled by the lack of a “backstop” in state law that would make certain that the law’s targets are met.

“It is relying on a lot of goodwill, a lot of press releases, a lot of promises that we’re not legally enforcing,” Winter said. “I don’t feel like our goals in 1261 are legally enforceable. I don’t feel like we’re on track to meet them.”

Regulation vs. ‘market transformation’

Colorado’s overall greenhouse gas emissions have fallen somewhat since peaking around 2010, according to state estimates, but remain significantly higher than the levels required by HB-1261’s 2025 and 2030 targets. State officials plan to meet those targets largely through emissions reductions in the electricity generation sector, which is poised to make rapid progress as wind and solar sources replace coal power plants over the next decade and beyond. Other sectors, like transportation and buildings, are likely to prove more challenging.

SB-200 would direct the AQCC to set specific, sector-based emissions limits by March 2022, and require greenhouse gas reductions “on a linear or more stringent pathway” corresponding to the HB-1261 goals.

“We shouldn’t let discomfort over enforceability or discomfort over ambition hold us back.”Pam Kiely, of Environmental Defense Fund

In testimony expressing the administration’s opposition to the bill, Toor told lawmakers that many of the greenhouse-gas reductions in the electricity sector are enforceable at the state level through the Public Utilities Commission or through the federal Clean Air Act. But he argued that hard emissions caps, especially on sectors like transportation and buildings, don’t make sense.

“The core of the administration’s perspective on this is that there are sectors where market transformation is what is required, and we cannot do it solely through enforceable regulation,” Toor told lawmakers. “Part of our discomfort with the language in the bill is that we actually don’t know what it is that we would need to do in those sectors, because no one has figured that out in a way that can guarantee those reductions.”

The bill’s supporters, including a wide range of local and national environmental groups, disagree. They say the bill gives enough flexibility to the AQCC to adjust emissions limits between sectors and assess actions taken by other state agencies and the private sector.

“These policy tools exist, and we are exercising them effectively for other pollutants,” Pam Kiely, senior director of regulatory strategy for the Environmental Defense Fund, said in testimony supporting the bill. “We shouldn’t let discomfort over enforceability or discomfort over ambition hold us back.”

Following testimony, Winter and other Democratic lawmakers offered a series of amendments aimed at addressing concerns raised by electric utilities and labor groups who testified in opposition to the bill. On a party-line vote, the bill was advanced to the Senate Finance Committee, and Winter told her fellow lawmakers that more amendments to the bill are likely as it moves through the General Assembly.

“We are thrilled to see our elected leaders listen to the majority of Coloradans who are demanding bold climate action by moving this important bill forward,” Conservation Colorado deputy director Jessica Goad said in a statement. “Today’s committee vote is the first step toward making sure we reduce greenhouse gases, increase environmental justice, and build on the work Gov. Polis has already done to cut our carbon emissions in half by 2030.”

The bill earned the support of State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, a moderate Democrat and a swing vote in the General Assembly’s narrowly divided upper chamber. Prior to Tuesday night’s committee vote, she said her concerns about the lack of consensus on the bill were outweighed by the urgent need to address climate-warming carbon emissions.

“This bill makes me very uncomfortable because it’s not the typical approach that I prefer,” Zenzinger said. “But I think that it’s OK that this bill makes me uncomfortable. … I think that it’s OK that we’re pushing the edge a little bit, because we need to get there, and we need to get there fast.”

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