Environmentalists Are Demanding Aggressive Action on Climate Change. How Far Will Colorado Democrats Go?

By Brian Eason | January 2, 2019 | The Colorado Sun

The political right in Colorado says the defeat of 2,500-foot setback measure signals the state is OK with the status quo for oil and gas.

After a November election dominated by Trump, transportation and health care, climate change is emerging as the top legislative priority on the political left, where environmental advocates and Democratic lawmakers are hoping to turn Colorado’s blue wave into a green one.

The only question is how far the new Democratic majority will go with new regulations of greenhouse gas emissions and on the oil and gas industry.

Environmental activists and lawmakers insist there’s a mandate for aggressive action. They point to Gov.-elect Jared Polis’ huge win on a platform that included a goal of 100 percent renewable energy, and to the 1.1 million votes for Proposition 112 that would have limited oil and gas drilling near neighborhoods. But the political right and energy interests see it differently, suggesting the overwhelming defeat of the proposition is justification for the status quo.

In the middle, the new Democratic governor and legislative majorities in the House and Senate are wary about pushing too far outside the mainstream — as the party did in 2014, the last time it held the trifecta at the statehouse – and losing its support from voters in the next election.

As a result, the early mood among policymakers seems to favor incremental progress this legislative session rather than the more aggressive approach that experts say is needed to avert catastrophic impacts from climate change. A national climate assessment released in November by the federal government concluded that time is running out to prevent widespread natural disasters that could cost the United States a tenth of its economic production by 2100.

Still, the fact that climate change is atop the legislative agenda at all marks a dramatic shift in Colorado, where the oil and gas industry’s influence as an economic driver in the state also has given it considerable power to blunt tougher regulations.

“We have about 10 to 12 years to address this or we are looking at serious catastrophic impacts. And Colorado, because of our geography and the importance of water with longer summers and less snowpack, we are at the tip of that spear,” said House Speaker-elect KC Becker, a Boulder Democrat who supported Proposition 112 and called climate change her top priority entering the legislative session.

“I don’t know the approach yet, but I know I want to engage various industries in figuring it out,” she added.

A push to limit carbon

For Conservation Colorado, step one is clear: the state should treat carbon dioxide the way it does other harmful air pollutants.

“Carbon’s a pollutant,” said Kelly Nordini, the environmental advocacy group’s executive director. “We need to set a limit on that pollution and say as a state how we’re going to limit that carbon pollution.”

If the state does that, the question becomes how aggressively do regulators move to limit emissions. The “Climate Blueprint,” published by Conservation Colorado and Western Resource Advocates, recommends a market-based solution, such as a “cap-and-trade” program or a tax that would make it costly for industries that don’t take steps to reduce carbon emissions on their own.

But while Polis supported the idea of a carbon tax in the election, it’s not clear that the administration or state lawmakers have the appetite to install the first one in the nation.

Instead, State Sen.-elect Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat and incoming chairwoman of the transportation and energy committee, says to expect legislation to address a lot of “small things that add up to something big” in combating climate change.

Carrots and sticks approach

Winter said the goal is to push all sectors, including private companies, to reduce their carbon emissions, whether that’s through a carbon tax or something else.

“We are looking at different carrots and different sticks to make sure we are reducing our carbon output,” she said.

And outside groups say it’s key that policymakers look beyond the things that grab the biggest headlines, like 100 percent renewable energy pledges.

“That’s a key point — it’s not just about wind turbines and solar panels and closing down coal plants and increasing natural gas generation,” said Howard Geller, the executive director of the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project or SWEEP. “Energy efficiency is a big contributor.”

So while low prices of clean energy have gotten most of the credit for reducing Colorado’s electrical emissions, gains in energy efficiency have been the bigger driver of emission reductions since 2008, according to SWEEP’s analysis of energy usage data.

“Some of the low-hanging fruits have been picked, but there’s new fruit on the tree and plenty of it,” Geller said. He added that utilities — with some regulatory prodding — could do more to incentivize consumers to switch to energy-efficient appliances and LED lighting, which have still not been widely adopted.

Other policy proposals being considered by state lawmakers include legislation to encourage solar panel installations on homes and wider adoption of electric vehicles by extending a state tax credit or allowing utilities to install vehicle charging infrastructure — ideas that have been shot down in the past by Republican opposition in a split legislature.

All eyes on Polis

While lawmakers theoretically could wield more power, Democratic legislative leaders and energy industry insiders expect the administration to set the tone and direction.

“I think when you look specifically at climate-change policy, we don’t see much in the way of legislation at this point,” said Matt Dempsey, a Colorado energy consultant. “I think there’s an emphasis on maybe taking small bites at the apple as opposed to a large ambitious plan that would actually move through the state legislature.”

Polis recently met with a handful of chief executives from major oil and gas companies that operate in the state. And the industry is looking to Polis’ State of the State address and watching his appointments to powerful regulatory boards for clues to how aggressively he plans to pursue emissions-limiting policies. A Public Utilities Commission seat is up for reappointment in January and four seats will open up on the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in July.

In what may be an early indicator of his ambitions, Polis this month picked Will Toor to lead the Colorado Energy Office, an agency that for years has been a political flashpoint in the fight between fossil fuels and renewable energy.

Toor, the outgoing transportation director at SWEEP, is an environmental sustainability advocate who supported the increased oil and gas setbacks of Proposition 112, a measure that Polis publicly opposed.

Staff writer John Frank contributed to this story.