Climate timidity rules in Colorado

The state must act quicker to shut down coal-fired power plants

March 31, 2022 11:52 am

Xcel Energy’s coal-fired Comanche Generating Station, shown here on Jan. 19, 2019, is located in Pueblo and is the largest power plant in the state. (Mike Sweeney/Special to Colorado Newsline)

Every climate-enabled fire in Colorado should spark fury at the timidity that inhibits the state from taking serious climate action.

Every instance of climate blowback should prompt fierce campaigns of accountability.

Every time lives and property are threatened due to human-caused warming in the West, Colorado residents should demand a change in approach or, absent that, a change in leadership.

Another instance arrived last weekend.

The NCAR Fire south of Boulder ignited Saturday afternoon and forced the evacuation of an estimated 19,000 people in 8,000 homes. Severely drought-stressed fuels played a role in the fire’s advance on the city. Only three months ago, Boulder County was the site of the most destructive fire in state history — the Marshall Fire devoured more than a thousand homes, and was propelled by human-caused climate change. Extreme fires are becoming the norm in Colorado, which, along with other states in the Southwest, is facing climate-caused water shortages.

This was all predicted.

Human activity is to blame.

And — in the face of massive property loss, threatened public health, and loss of life — leaders in Colorado are proving unequal to the crisis.


The state’s climate response looks comparatively good on paper. Its 2019 greenhouse gas emissions law, House Bill 19-1261, is one of the strongest in the country. It sets clear reduction targets compared to 2005 levels that the state must hit — 26% by 2025, 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050. Gov. Jared Polis and members of his administration often employ the right rhetoric. During his State of the State address in January, Polis talked about “meeting the climate crisis head on.”

But in practice Polis prefers to meet the climate crisis only around the edges. The state is not on track to meet its own emission reduction targets, and even if it were, the targets increasingly appear too relaxed in light of the accelerating catastrophic effects of climate change throughout the world.

The Polis administration notes certain big-ticket climate-action achievements as evidence it is taking meaningful action. These include Xcel Energy’s Clean Energy Plan, new rules adopted last year that reduce dangerous methane emissions at oil and gas operations, and the state’s zero-emission vehicle standard, meant to ensure electric vehicles are available for sale in Colorado. This week Polis and several Democratic lawmakers announced a package of proposed air-quality measures at the Legislature.

But the state has delayed climate action, such as an Advanced Clean Trucks rule, or abandoned it, such as the Employee Traffic Reduction Program, on a comparable scale. The Polis administration has a maddening predilection for a “market-driven transition” to renewable energy and a feckless preference for voluntary industry action. The state is preparing for a dramatic increase in oil and gas production through about 2030. The result is that, at the current trajectory, the state likely won’t hit its own emission reduction targets. 

The state must stop issuing new oil and gas drilling permits, and it must mandate a faster transition to renewable energy.

An Environmental Defense Fund analysis about a year ago concluded that the state was on track to achieve at best 16% reductions — not 26% — by 2025, and at best 26% — not 50% by 2030. Alex DeGolia, who leads EDF’s state climate strategy in Colorado and other states, told Newsline this week that a forthcoming updated analysis that accounts for the latest climate action in Colorado will show the state is still “well short of meeting its targets.”

We know what must happen if climate action is to measure up to the climate emergency.

The state must stop issuing new oil and gas drilling permits, and it must mandate a faster transition to renewable energy.

Several coal-fired power plants in the state continue to churn out pollution, and at least one coal-fired unit is projected to remain in operation beyond 2030. The state should not allow that to occur. Every coal-fired unit should be fast-tracked for closure at a quicker pace than currently planned, yet the Polis administration has an alarming tendency to favor the preferences of utilities over the health of the planet.

There are statewide efforts to encourage more electric vehicles, public transit, the electrification of home heating and appliances, and other areas that involve the participation of millions of individuals and properties. These are all worthy programs, but a transition to renewable energy would target several large sources of pollution; it’s cost-effective and it can yield significant short-term emissions reduction. What’s required to achieve such a transition is the willingness of Polis and climate advocates in the General Assembly to be bold. So far they instead have prioritized corporate interests and cowered before opposition from industry lobbyists and business advocates.

Opponents of a rapid, regulated transition to renewable energy argue that it could lead to higher costs and economic disruptions. Even if this were true in the short-term, the long-term costs of a failure to implement immediate and immense changes are incalculable, and the disruptions that should really command our attention are those endured by so many Boulder County families displaced by fire, and other climate victims throughout the state and the world. Climate action must also be more robust at the federal level and in other developed countries. But Coloradans have a responsibility to hold state leaders to account.

There will be another destructive wildfire. Drought will continue to pummel the West. Climate change will increasingly threaten public health. And with each new climate-enabled disaster, Coloradans should recall that state leaders chose half-measures and lip service over leadership.


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