As roughly a hundred environmental activists joined Democratic lawmakers on the lawn of the Colorado Capitol on Thursday to rally in support of a major piece of climate change legislation, there was a feeling of exasperation in the air.
“This shouldn’t be this hard,” said state Sen. Faith Winter, a Democrat from Thornton and lead sponsor of Senate Bill 21-200, which would enshrine a series of greenhouse-gas emissions targets into state law and direct air-quality regulators to enforce them.
Democrats control both chambers of the Colorado General Assembly, and SB-200, which has comfortably sailed through multiple committee votes, could be passed by the full state Senate as soon as Friday, after which it would be taken up the House. But the legislation faces a potential brick wall of opposition from Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, who has criticized the bill in harsh terms and indicated he would veto it if it reaches his desk.
Thursday’s event was the latest effort organized by a diverse coalition of Colorado environmental and social-justice groups in support of the bill, which has brought to a head a long-running conflict between Polis and members of his own party over how best to meet the state’s climate targets. Speakers addressed rally-goers from a podium to which a sign was attached that read, “Gov. Polis, don’t veto our future!”
In January, the Polis administration finalized a “roadmap” charting a path toward meeting the emissions-reduction targets spelled out in House Bill 19-1261, climate legislation passed by Democrats in 2019. SB-200 would direct the state’s Air Quality Control Commission to create a comprehensive set of rules to enforce the roadmap’s sector-by-sector goals — an approach that Polis has consistently opposed.
“We’re standing here with open arms, ready to talk,” said state Rep. Dominque Jackson, a Democrat from Aurora and SB-200 sponsor. “This is the governor’s roadmap, and we’re just looking to codify it with actionable, enforceable, equitable goals.”
In comments to the editorial board of the Colorado Springs Gazette last month, Polis said that the bill would grant the AQCC, whose members he appoints, “dictatorial authority over our economy.” Shelby Wieman, a spokesperson for the governor, echoed those comments in a statement Thursday, calling SB-200 “a fatally flawed bill that would set back our state’s climate leadership and slow our efforts to combat climate change.”
“While the Governor agrees that the (AQCC) has a critical role to play in accomplishing our climate goals, he does not believe an unelected volunteer board deep within the state government’s bureaucracy should be tasked with regulating the entire economy,” Wieman said. “Such sweeping purview only lies with the elected legislature and the Governor.”
Polis does support provisions in SB-200 that would establish an environmental-justice advisory board and allow the state to collect permitting fees from greenhouse-gas emitters, and Wieman said that the governor “is open to further dialogue with the sponsors to explore legislation that would further codify near term GHG reductions for the oil and gas industry and large industrial polluters.”
“We have said we are open to any amendments that still ensure that we are meeting our goals, that there’s accountability in meeting those goals,” Winter told Newsline. “We do have agreement on environmental justice in this bill, but you can’t have environmental justice without accountability on pollution reduction. And we are waiting for a response.”
Joe Salazar, executive director of environmental group Colorado Rising and a former state representative, said that Polis’ opposition to SB-200 sends a “terrible message” to Democratic voters who supported his 2018 bid for governor in the hopes that he would aggressively tackle climate issues and crack down on polluters.
“He needs to start operating like a governor who knows the checks and balances of government,” Salazar told Newsline. “He needs to start working with legislators, to find a way for Senate Bill 200 to get to his desk for him to sign it. He should know, as a former congressman, that this is a give and take.”
Polis administration officials, including Colorado Energy Office director Will Toor, reject claims that the state’s roadmap relies merely on “aspirational” goals, arguing that many of cuts targeted by 2025 and 2030 under HB-1261 are “locked in” thanks to a variety of regulatory efforts, including coal plant closures negotiated under federal clean-air rules. In other sectors, including transportation and building fuel use, they question whether emissions reductions can be guaranteed through regulation, rather than technological advances and market shifts.
But supporters of SB-200, including many Democratic lawmakers, argue that a legal “backstop” of statutory emissions limits is needed to provide certainty and induce the private sector to act. They increasingly see a fundamental philosophical divide with the governor over what role state government should play in cutting emissions.
“I think that’s a lot of it — should we rely on private-sector action, or should we be the stewards, as government, to ensure we meet our goals?” Winter said.
Environmental group Conservation Colorado, which helped organize Thursday’s rally, points to polling that consistently shows strong support for aggressive climate action, with nearly two-thirds of Coloradans telling pollsters in January that they want their state legislator to take “strong action this year to combat climate change.” Jackson said that the crowd that had gathered at the Capitol was proof of that.
“We represent these people, people in every corner of the state of Colorado,” Jackson said. “And this is what people are asking for. This is our job.”