After Grassroots Push, Reworked Climate Tax Headed to Denver City Council

After Grassroots Push, Reworked Climate Tax Headed to Denver City Council
A grassroots initiative that would tax energy use to fund city efforts to tackle climate change failed to gather enough signatures to make the 2019 ballot — but Denver City Council may refer an amended version to voters anyway.

City council president Jolon Clark, joined by at least six co-sponsors, plans to introduce two pieces of climate-related legislation next week. The first would establish a new Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency to coordinate the city's efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and transition to clean energy, while the second would refer a tax measure to voters, asking them to fund the new office by approving an excise tax on electricity and natural gas consumption by commercial and industrial users.

"The science is clear. Climate change is the greatest threat to our environment, economy and health, especially to our most vulnerable populations," Clark says in a statement. "Urgent and unprecedented changes are needed. This is Denver’s commitment to ensuring we live up to our Paris Agreement promise, meet the science-based targets for greenhouse gas emission reductions, and protect the planet for future generations."

Under the Climate Action Plan released by Mayor Michael Hancock's administration last year, Denver committed to achieving a series of greenhouse gas emissions cuts between now and 2050. But the city is likely to miss the plan's first major target — a 15 percent cut in overall emissions by the end of next year — and activists are pushing leaders to do more. The world's top climate scientists have warned that governments must cut global carbon emissions nearly in half by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by mid-century in order to avert the worst impacts of climate change.

“We have to elevate this as an issue, and we have to elevate our staff who are working on this,” says Clark. “We haven’t elevated this work. We haven’t stepped forward and said, ‘This is a crisis, and it’s going to take focus, and it’s going to take hard decisions, and it’s going to take money.’”

The proposed legislation announced Thursday is similar to the Resilient Denver initiative, a citizen-led effort launched earlier this year by a group of environmental activists including Brandon Rietheimer, who led the push for the Green Roof Initiative that Denver voters approved in 2017. Clark's proposal would not tax residential customers, as the Resilient Denver initiative would, but both would raise roughly the same amount: Clark's plan would raise an estimated $43 million annually, according to a city council press release, compared to the $46.5 million that would be raised under Resilient Denver's proposal.

That's in part because the city council proposal would tax businesses at a slightly higher rate — 0.6 cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity and seven cents per therm of natural gas, with a "rebate for small businesses that face hardships paying the new tax," according to a press release. Resilient Denver, which failed to collect enough signatures in time to put the initiative before voters this year, faces a November 12 deadline to submit additional signatures and potentially qualify for the 2020 ballot — and the group isn't taking a formal position on Clark's legislation, for now.

"We haven't had a chance to read the whole thing yet," says Ean Tafoya, a Resilient Denver spokesperson. "But it's exciting to see something coming out of the initiative that we worked so hard on."

The plan isn't without its skeptics. Councilwoman Debbie Ortega worries that the legislation is being rushed through without enough feedback from stakeholders like Xcel Energy and Denver business groups. (Xcel, which currently collects a similar tax on electricity consumption in Boulder, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Denver proposal.)

"We all know that we have a lot of work to do to accelerate addressing the reduction of our carbon footprint," says Ortega. "But having a clear understanding of everything that's being done, and what the implications are, is important. If the end result is we're pushing businesses out of Denver, I don't think that's in our best interest."

"Xcel Energy does not have an opinion on this proposal," Mark Stutz, a company spokesperson, wrote in an email to Westword. "It should be noted, however, that we already work closely with all of our communities, including Denver, to address their energy goals. We’re committed to delivering customers with a cleaner energy mix and have set an industry-leading vision to achieve 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2050."

Clark's proposal, which will be introduced at the August 13 meeting of the Finance and Governance Committee, appears to have the votes it needs to pass, boasting support from at least six other councilmembers, including newcomers Candi CdeBaca, Amanda Sandoval and Chris Hinds.

"Addressing the realities of climate change cannot be postponed," says Sandoval in a statement. "We now have an opportunity to act as a city and community to make an investment that will help secure our economy and quality of life for generations to come."

“Any time we have to make bold decisions and blaze a new path, that criticism will be there,” Clark says of possible pushback to the proposal. “Unfortunately, we have about a decade to do a lot of really hard work, and honestly, this is just step one. This doesn’t get us enough to fully do everything that we need to, but it’s a very big first step.”
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Chase Woodruff is a staff writer at Westword interested in climate change, the environment and money in politics.
Contact: Chase Woodruff