The Ten Biggest Colorado Environmental Stories of 2019

Craig Station, a coal-fired power plant in Moffat County, Colorado.
Craig Station, a coal-fired power plant in Moffat County, Colorado. Jimmy Thomas / Flickr
There has always been a bit of a mismatch between Colorado's environmentally friendly self-image, its knack for salesmanship, and the messier reality on the ground. We wax rhapsodic about escaping to the mountains for the weekend, then sit for hours in traffic in our gas-guzzling SUVs to get there. We wear $300 Patagonia jackets made from recycled polyester and boast one of the worst waste diversion rates in the country.

In 2019, some of these contradictions were more apparent than ever — and many of the biggest stories in the realm of environmental policy and activism involved attempts to reconcile them. Is Denver really walking the walk on environmental issues? Should an oil refinery be sponsoring a sustainability conference? Can a state really "show leadership" on climate change while also producing record-breaking amounts of oil? Here are ten of 2019's biggest environmental stories:

Feds Flunk Denver on Air Quality
Denver's notorious "brown cloud" made several reappearances this year, as industrial polluters and a growing, car-dependent metro population continued to pose problems for the region's air quality. We've failed to meet federal limits for ozone pollution for more than a decade running, and the Environmental Protection Agency has finally had enough: After dragging its feet for a while, the agency classified the Denver region as a "serious" violator of air-quality standards in mid-December, triggering a host of stricter pollution controls that state regulators will now have to enforce.

SB 181 Shakes Up the Oil and Gas Wars
After another high-stakes ballot fight in 2018 ended with a contentious status quo still intact, it fell to Colorado lawmakers to negotiate a peace in the decade-long conflict between the state’s booming oil and gas industry and the Front Range suburbs that wanted fracking operations out of their backyards. The result, Senate Bill 181, upended seventy years of state policy to give local governments more authority over oil and gas development and instructed state regulators to enact tougher health and safety rules.

Environmental and community groups cheered SB 181’s passage, but it will be years before its impact is fully understood. State-level rulemaking has proceeded slowly, city and county governments are still figuring out exactly what the new law empowers them to do, and some of the bill’s last-minute concessions to industry groups — like a requirement that local regulations be “necessary and reasonable” — are likely to end up being tested in court. Contrary to Governor Jared Polis’s hopeful declaration as he signed the bill in April, Colorado’s “oil and gas wars” are far from over.

Colorado Prepares for a Clean-Energy Revolution...
Most of them didn’t receive a fraction of the attention that SB 181 did, but a slate of clean-energy bills passed by lawmakers in 2019 could end up having a much more transformative effect on Colorado’s economy. Legislation to set statewide goals for greenhouse gas emissions cuts, speed up the decarbonization of the electric sector, incentivize electric vehicle purchases and more passed out of the legislature and boosted the state’s efforts to tackle climate change.

...but a Denver Climate Tax Goes Up in Smoke

While climate activists celebrated some big wins at the state level in 2019, they were left frustrated by events on the other side of Civic Center Park, where Mayor Michael Hancock quashed an effort to put an energy tax on the ballot in order to better fund the city’s climate programs. In a compromise with city council members who supported the measure, Hancock agreed to boost climate funding in his 2020 budget and launch a climate action task force that will make recommendations — including for a possible tax measure — next year.

Youth Climate Strikes and the Greta Effect
The largest day of climate demonstrations in history saw more than 5,000 activists, many of them young people, march through the streets of downtown Denver and rally at the State Capitol, joining millions around the world to demand that governments take more aggressive action to combat the climate crisis. “We're the generation that's going to have to deal with years of irresponsible climate policy by outdated politicians,” high school student Amelia Gorman told Westword. "It's going to really affect our future, so it's our job to speak out about it now.”

The activist who helped inspire this global Youth Climate Strike movement, Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, drew another big crowd when she visited Denver a few weeks later, while young Denverites like Thomas Lopez emerged as leaders in their own right, challenging Hancock on stage at the Sustainable Denver Summit in December. There's a new generation of climate activists making their voices heard, and they're only going to get louder.

"Frackenlooper" Jumps Into the Senate Race
As important as state and local policies are, it's at the federal level that many of the most critical decisions on climate and environmental issues are made — so it's easy to see why so many progressive activists' hearts fell when, in the span of just a few weeks, former Colorado governor and erstwhile presidential contender John Hickenlooper entered the Democratic Senate primary and cleared the field of most of his competition. Hickenlooper says addressing climate change will be among his top priorities if he wins the nomination and unseats Senator Cory Gardner next year, but his record as a longtime ally of the oil and gas industry has plenty of activists feeling skeptical — and mobilizing in support of primary opponents like former Colorado House speaker Andrew Romanoff.

Bernhardt's War on the BLM
In the 1980s, they were dubbed the “Colorado Mafia” — a small network of Colorado-bred conservatives who occupied key posts in the Reagan administration, working to reshape federal public-lands policy on behalf of ranchers, mining companies and other powerful industrial interests back home in the West. And in many ways, David Bernhardt, the Rifle native and longtime oil lobbyist confirmed as President Trump’s Secretary of the Interior in April, has set out to finish the work that his Centennial State predecessors started decades ago.

Not content to simply continue shredding environmental protections and opening up millions of acres of public land to new oil and gas development, Bernhardt in July announced plans for a “reorganization” of the Bureau of Land Management, which will shift 27 employees to a new headquarters in Grand Junction and scatter hundreds of others to regional offices across the West. Conservation groups say it’s just a veiled attempt to dismantle the BLM and weaken its environmental review processes — and as the relocation deadline looms, top staffers are preparing to depart the agency en masse.

RTD's Road to Nowhere
Want to help fight climate change? Want to clean up Denver’s air? Nothing that you can do personally has a greater day-to-day impact than cutting out car travel in favor of walking, biking and public transit. But the Regional Transportation District hasn’t always made that easy, and in the year that the transit agency celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, there were times when it seemed to make it harder than ever. Falling ridership, proposed service cuts and a grim economic forecast has the system reeling — and now it’s looking for new leadership after CEO Dave Genova announced his retirement in November.

RTD’s crisis is a slow-motion disaster for the region’s efforts to lower greenhouse gas emissions and bring air quality in line with EPA standards — but is anyone treating it that way? In September, state and local leaders sprang into action when the RTD board flubbed a minor decision over whether to lease a small piece of real estate to a private museum foundation. But aside from vague frustrations and talk from a few state lawmakers about “restructuring” the agency, no one has yet stepped up with a vision of how to turn things around.

Suncor Blows Its Top
The flakes that fell across parts of Commerce City in the weeks before Christmas weren’t a picturesque holiday snow flurry: They were “catalyst,” a chemical mixture released into the air as a result of a malfunction at the nearby Suncor oil refinery. It was a fitting — and for many nearby residents, frightening — end to a rough year for the Canadian energy giant and its Commerce City facility, which is Colorado's only oil refinery and one of its largest sources of air pollution. Local climate activists launched a campaign calling for the Suncor refinery to be shut down, while lawmakers at both the state and federal levels want to regulate the facility more strictly.

The Beginning of the End for Colorado's Oil Era?
As recently as a few years ago, it was possible to consider the end of the oil and gas industry as a far-off question, something difficult to imagine, a bridge to be crossed at some indefinite point in the distant future. This was the year that that thinking changed for good, as more people than ever before began to grapple with the scientific consensus that the world must reach net-zero carbon emissions — a goal plainly incompatible with large-scale oil and gas production — by 2050 at the latest.

It goes without saying that switching every power plant, building and vehicle in Colorado to clean energy sources, along with winding down an entire industrial sector that has been a bedrock of its economy for more than a century — and doing it all within just a few decades — is an enormous challenge. But if Colorado and the world want to avert the most catastrophic consequences of climate change, there's no other option. Emboldened climate activists pressed lawmakers and state officials to confront this reality in 2019, pushing for divestment from fossil-fuel companies, limits on new oil and gas drilling, a fuller accounting of the state's carbon footprint and more. For now, policy-makers are content to dance around questions about the future of one of Colorado's most powerful industries. But the questions aren't going away.
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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