Colorado Lawmakers Pass Key Climate Bill, Clock Ticking for Others

Colorado Lawmakers Pass Key Climate Bill, Clock Ticking for Others
UN Photo / Mark Garten

After a series of last-minute votes in the final days of the legislative session, the most significant climate change bill in Colorado history is on track to become law. But time is running out for others as lawmakers scramble to prioritize bills for passage before the session ends at midnight on Friday.

House Bill 1261, which would set a series of statewide targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions over the next few decades, passed the Senate on a party-line vote on Wednesday, May 1. Hours later, the House, which had given its initial approval to the bill last month, re-passed the bill with Senate amendments, sending it to Governor Jared Polis to be signed into law.

“Make no mistake: This is a big deal," Kelly Nordini, executive director of Conservation Colorado, said in a statement on the bill's passage. "The Climate Action Plan to Reduce Pollution ensures that we are doing our part to reduce carbon pollution and leave a livable, healthy Colorado to our kids and grandkids."

HB 1261 would commit the state to achieving a 26 percent cut in carbon emissions by 2025 — formalizing a goal set by former governor John Hickenlooper in a 2017 executive order — as well as a 50 percent cut by 2030 and a 90 percent cut by 2050. That's roughly in line with the global decarbonization timeline suggested by top U.N. climate scientists in a major report last year.

Some environmental activists, however, argue that Colorado should set even more ambitious goals. Many theoretical models for rapid global decarbonization require the U.S. and Europe to achieve net-zero emissions much faster than developing Asian and African countries — and in general, the more aggressive the timeline, the better the odds of staying below dangerous warming thresholds.

In a statement on HB 1261's passage, the Colorado Coalition for a Livable Climate, which includes more than two dozen environmental and social-justice groups, applauded the "historic progress" made by the bill but urged Democratic lawmakers to do more when they return to the Capitol next year.

"The CCLC calls on the legislature to improve upon the goals established by HB19-1261 in 2020 so that they are more in line with what the science is telling us we must do," the statement read. "Our state must adjust its goals in accordance with the best available science to establish Colorado as a true climate leader, for the sake of ourselves and future generations."

Lawmakers on Wednesday also gave final approval to Senate Bill 77, bipartisan legislation that incentivizes electric utilities to build charging ports and other infrastructure for electric vehicles. After electricity generation, transportation is Colorado's second-largest source of carbon emissions, and the widespread adoption of zero-emission EVs is a crucial strategy for achieving the necessary cuts. Officials have committed to putting nearly one million EVs on Colorado roads by 2030, or roughly 15 percent of all light-duty vehicles in the state.

"[SB 77] is really important, because in order to hit Colorado's electric-vehicle goals, we're going to need to build thousands of charging stations in lots of different places," says Travis Madsen, director of the transportation program at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project. "And our electric utility companies are well-positioned to do a lot of that work. It's an essential step in getting rid of the pollution from our vehicle system."

As the clock runs down on the legislature’s 120-day regular session, a backlog of roughly 200 bills remains on the official legislative calendar, and Republicans are doing everything they can to slow down floor work. While Democrats prioritized HB 1261 and SB 77 for passage, many other significant pieces of legislation are at risk of not being passed, including several related to climate policy.

Lawmakers gave preliminary approval to HB 1261 early Tuesday morning in a rare all-night session, during which they also advanced House Bill 1314, a “just transition” plan to provide benefits to coal workers and communities dependent on the coal industry as Colorado continues to switch to renewable electricity generation. HB 1314 is awaiting final passage by the Senate, after which it will have to be re-passed by the House before midnight Friday.

Also awaiting Senate action is House Bill 1159, which would extend state tax credits for electric-vehicle purchases. House Bill 1313, which would codify and provide incentives for Xcel Energy's plan to achieve an 80 percent carbon emissions cut from electricity generation by 2030, advanced out of a Senate committee on Wednesday night and will need to clear another committee and two votes of the full Senate before midnight Friday.

Advocates for climate action are hopeful that the remaining bills will get in under the wire and confident that the legislature's work this session will mark a turning point for Colorado's efforts to cut emissions.

"I think we're going to look back on this session and think that a lot of the bills that passed are quite significant," says Madsen. "There's going to be a lot more work to do, but I think it's opened a door for Colorado to take some major steps forward in reducing pollution."

In last year's landmark report, U.N. scientists told the world's policymakers that achieving a 45 percent emissions cut by 2030 would require "rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society." Once Polis signs HB 1261 into law, Colorado will be formally committed to making such changes. A long rule-making and implementation process will follow, and only time will tell how effective the new law really is. But the stakes, as activists noted following the bill's passage on Wednesday, couldn't be higher.

“The risk that climate change will destroy all we hold dear is readily apparent now," Gina Hardin, president of climate activist group 350 Colorado, said in the CCLC's statement. "The Midwest may take centuries to recover from the massive loss of topsoil from the unprecedented flooding in what has been the world’s breadbasket. The damage has already cost $3 billion and is rising. Recovery from the infrastructure and economic destruction will take years. Mozambique has just been slammed by an unprecedented two cyclones within 6 weeks. The horror stories go on and on.”
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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