Greenhouse Gas Roadmap Sets Destination Without a Clear Path

Environmental experts say Colorado’s pollution reduction plan leaves too much up in the air

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Gov. Jared Polis’ administration released a report Jan. 14 that sets forth plans to scale back atmosphere-warming pollutants, outlining a blueprint that is intended to lead to lower fossil fuel use in Colorado’s transportation system, some industries and in homes across the state. The Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap aims to show the way to reductions in carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases mandated by 2019 legislation.

At a news conference Polis sought to highlight the importance of state policies that tackle climate change, mentioning record-setting wildfires across Colorado last year as a signal of their urgency. He said the fires, which were among events state residents “couldn’t have imagined,” are “a stark reminder that climate refugees don’t only live near the oceans on the coast, but right here in Colorado.” The governor also touted the report as advancing a commitment to address the inequitable impacts of the planet’s warming climate that more grievously impact economically distressed communities. 

The plans included in the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap aim to achieve greenhouse gas emission reductions demanded by House Bill 19-1261. That law, called the Climate Action Plan to Reduce Pollution, also demands that Colorado greenhouse gas emissions decline by 26% below 2005 levels by 2025, by 50% below 2005 levels by 2030, and by 90% below 2005 levels by 2050. An executive summary of the report released by the Colorado Energy Office does not say exactly how the state will achieve the latter goal, indicating only that the report “analyzes further actions that can help put the state on a solid path to meeting the 2050 goal.”

Whether the plan is likely to achieve even the shorter-term emission goals is unclear. Much emphasis is placed on efforts by utilities to reduce reliance on fossil fuels to generate electricity. The report also argues that implementation of two new motor vehicle pollution rules — the Colorado Low Emission Automobile Regulation, finalized in September 2019, and Zero Emission Vehicle standards adopted in August 2019 — will significantly advance emission targets. “A key priority is to increase the number of electric vehicles, including trucks and buses, on Colorado roads,” it says. “Establishing new standards that stimulate investment and remove barriers to EV ownership will make it easier and more affordable to drive an EV.” No specific discussion of how to encourage that investment or reduce barriers to more widespread ownership of electric vehicles is included.

The Colorado Energy Office and its partners in the preparation of the report do acknowledge that emission reductions will be difficult to achieve unless greenhouse gas pollution from a variety of industries, including the oil and gas sector, is cut. “Progressing towards the state’s GHG goals requires deep methane emissions reduction from the oil and gas industry, landfills, sewage treatment plants, coal mines, and other sources,” the report says. The authors cite Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission regulations, finalized late last year, as a primary pathway to assuring that oil and gas infrastructure leak less methane and other greenhouse gases but otherwise punt on the issue of when air quality regulations that apply to the industry, or others, will be proposed or what they may say. “The [Air Pollution Control Division] staff anticipate proposing regulations to the [Air Quality Control Commission] in 2021,” the report says. 

The omission from the report of a specific regulatory roadmap is a significant concern for the environmental protection community. “We in Colorado need to be further along than a planning document,” said Pam Kiely, senior director of regulatory strategy at Environmental Defense Fund. “I think we need a concrete regulatory agenda that has specific ambition.” She explained that, “given the urgency of climate science, concrete regulations that are either sector-by-sector or [that] tackle multiple sectors at once, that are capable of definite and quantifiable emission reduction” are necessary and that the more fundamental questions of which agency is going to do what regulation, when that regulation will be implemented, and how much emissions the regulations will eliminate, cannot be answered without that guidance in the state’s plan. 

Keily was especially concerned about the lack of clarity around AQCC’s role in fleshing out the plan’s implementation. “The legislature stood up and said we’re in a climate emergency in 2019,” she said. “So we’re going to set in place concrete goals and we’re going to direct the Air Quality Control Commission to adopt rules and regulations to ensure those goals are achieved.” While it is necessary for the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap to involve other agencies, “the think the legislature directed to have happen is missing,” Kiely added.

For Kevin Lynch, an associate professor at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law who specializes in environmental law, Polis’ failure to include a detailed regulatory agenda might mean that there is a greater risk of the long-term plan failing to achieve its goals. “These plans, you know, I always take them with a grain of salt,” Lynch said. “They really matter for what’s going to happen in the near term — in the next year or so.” Lynch noted that policymakers cannot predict the future. Should Polis be replaced in the 2022 election, especially by a Republican candidate, then the vague long-term aspirations may be cast aside. “It’s nice to have this plan, but it only matters if it gets implemented,” Lynch said. 

The claimed equity benefits described in the report have also been disputed. Some environmental protection advocates are not convinced the administration’s guide for approaching the complex issue actually will pay adequate attention to the disparate consequences a changing climate produces. The plan must “address that reality with clear policy to specifically aid those communities and hold their polluters responsible,” said a statement posted on the home page of Healthy Air & Water Colorado. Stacy Tellinguisen, a climate policy analyst at Western Resource Advocates, criticized the plan on grounds that this focus is not apparent. “Specifically, we’ve heard from our frontline community partners — and we agree — that the equitable part is missing from the roadmap,” she told The Colorado Sun.

State officials involved with the roadmap’s development think it does address the varying reverberations of fossil fuel pollution and the atmospheric change it is rapidly producing. In an interview conducted Dec. 29, Colorado Energy Office director Will Toor said that Polis’ administration will implement approaches that include a “medium- and heavy-duty vehicle strategy” and that a principal goal “will be trying to move to lower emissions in areas like north Denver and Commerce City where you both have many fleets that are headquartered but you also have big highways and industrial facilities that are creating very localized pollution burdens impacting those communities.” The report’s executive summary mentions that regulators can achieve “equitable progress” only if the state facilitates “investments needed to modernize our economy more quickly in disproportionately and historically impacted communities.” It also commits to “equity analysis” when permit and siting decisions for facilities that emit greenhouse gases are made. 

The report does mention some rulemaking efforts that have been planned by the state’s air quality, oil and gas, and utility agencies. Some of those regulatory efforts are not yet clearly defined.

The Departments of Agriculture, Natural Resources, Public Health and Environment, and Transportation were partners with the state Energy Office in the preparation of the report. Polis’ administration engaged Energy Environmental Economics (E3), a consulting firm based in Boston, New York and San Francisco, to model greenhouse gas emissions in each of the state’s major industrial sectors. 

— Hank Lacey

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