Colorado officials have embarked on an ambitious, multi-departmental regulatory overhaul aimed at bringing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions in line with scientifically defined climate goals. But with warnings about the need for drastic emissions cuts growing more and more urgent every day, are they going fast enough?
That’s the question that hung over the monthly meeting of the Air Quality Control Commission on Thursday, November 21, as top staff from Governor Jared Polis’s administration briefed commissioners on the state’s new climate laws and the road ahead for their efforts to decarbonize Colorado’s economy.
“There’s clearly a lot going on, and everyone’s maxed out — and I find myself with a sense of urgency that wants to push us to go faster,” said commissioner Elise Jones. “My understanding is that the gap we’re trying to make up is pretty significant.”
“I think we share the sense of urgency,” John Putnam, director of environmental programs for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, told commissioners. “Part of our challenge is basically to gear up the infrastructure of the state to match the policy direction from the legislature and the governor.”
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Colorado lawmakers passed nearly a dozen bills aimed at tackling climate change in the 2019 session, and regulators across multiple state agencies have begun the long, hard work of fully implementing them. For the AQCC and their staff at the health department, the major new laws in question are Senate Bill 96, requiring new greenhouse-gas reporting standards, and House Bill 1261, which set an aggressive series of emissions goals between now and 2050 — and tasked AQCC commissioners with enacting regulations that will help meet them.
Statewide greenhouse gas emissions declined slightly between 2010 and 2015, a CDPHE report released earlier this year found, but the downward trajectory isn’t nearly steep enough to meet upcoming targets, including a 50 percent economy-wide cut by 2030. Officials expect that as much as half of that reduction could come from a continued transition to clean energy in the electricity sector, but the other half will have to come from other, more difficult sources.
“The glass-half-empty view on that is, we still have 50 percent, roughly, that we’re going to have to find from other sectors,” Putnam said. “And those are tough sectors. We’re going to need substantial reductions in transportation, structures, industry, probably agriculture and other areas.”
That means it will be a busy few years for the AQCC, which plans to enact an initial set of regulations on greenhouse gas reporting and reductions during two rulemakings in mid-2020. The commission is likely to consider further regulation once the Colorado Energy Office completes an extensive decarbonization "road map," expected by next September, detailing what kind of policies will be necessary to meet the state's new emissions goals.
While Colorado's annual greenhouse gas emissions — about 130 million tons of CO2-equivalent — are only a fraction of national and global totals, Putnam emphasized that with other states watching Colorado closely, the real impact of our actions could extend much further.
“As I’m talking to my colleagues around the country, it is crystal clear that the country is looking to Colorado right now for leadership on this issue, and for a model for how to move forward on a state level," he said. “At the end of the day, the difference we make is not just achieving goals here in Colorado, but really providing a way for people to travel in our wake.”
One thing that isn't part of the Colorado model, at least for now, is scrutiny of the full carbon footprint of the state's oil and gas industry. Colorado is a net exporter of oil and gas, and operators are on track to keep setting production records for the foreseeable future — but while state regulators are continuing to target "upstream" emissions like methane leaks, they haven't yet embraced restricting fossil-fuel development as a climate strategy. A report released this week by the U.N. Environment Program found that the world is on track to produce far more oil and gas than is compatible with global climate goals.
“We’re talking about reducing methane, and that’s wonderful,” said Jeremy Nichols, director of the climate and energy program at WildEarth Guardians, said during public comment. “But what opportunities can we embrace to incentivize a decline, and ultimately an end, to fossil-fuel production in this state? The science shows that’s a reasonable concept to embrace and to start to put into action.”
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One challenge that the state faces in meeting its emissions targets, which came up repeatedly in Thursday's briefing, is finding the resources and staff necessary to develop and enforce new rules. Earlier this year, officials announced the creation of a dedicated climate-change unit within CDPHE, and the department's Air Pollution Control Division is in line for a significant expansion under Polis's 2021 budget request.
“In future years, we’re going to need to continue to build out this program and provide the long-term resources to set these programs up for success,” said Zach Pierce, the governor's senior policy adviser for energy and natural resources. “That’s a really important piece of this, and the proposal in this year’s budget is an important first step.”
For now, though, commissioners and the agency's existing staff will have to manage the daunting workload — and a delicate balancing act across multiple emissions sectors and interest groups — on their own. It will take big, potentially disruptive changes to make Colorado's climate plan a reality, and time is running out to make them count.
“This is a classic rock-and-hard-place problem,” Commissioner Auden Schendler told staff. “You’re all climate warriors, and the will is there and the intent is there. I would urge us, and you, to continue to think about how to accelerate the timeline.”