At the monthly meeting of the state’s Air Quality Control Commission on February 20, commissioners formally voted to begin enacting two sets of greenhouse gas rules, with a final vote expected in May. The first set will require stricter, more frequent reporting of emissions by major pollution sources, while the second will gradually phase out the use of certain hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a type of greenhouse gas commonly used in refrigerators, air conditioners and certain aerosols.
HFCs account for less than 1 percent of Colorado’s greenhouse gas emissions annually, according to a 2019 report from state regulators — but for now, they’re the only category of pollutant that the AQCC plans on regulating as part of its new climate rules.
“Starting with HFCs — I’ve got to be honest, it’s just utterly pathetic,” says Jeremy Nichols, director of the climate and energy program at environmental group WildEarth Guardians. “That’s what they’re coming out of the gate with? It’s a drop in the bucket.”
Colorado lawmakers passed a sweeping package of climate legislation in 2019, formalizing a series of greenhouse gas reduction targets and giving the AQCC and regulators at the Colorado Department of Health and Environment broad authority to enact rules to help meet them.
Ten months later, however, the slow pace and narrow scope of the commission’s climate rulemaking process is leading to a growing sense of alarm among advocates — even relatively moderate environmental groups. That’s especially the case after the release of an independent analysis by consulting firm M.J. Bradley and Associates on February 18, which found that Colorado is nowhere near on track to meet its new statutory emissions goals.
Even under a favorable set of assumptions regarding new policies and market trends, the report concluded, Colorado is only on pace to reduce its annual emissions by about 37 million tons of carbon-dioxide-equivalent (CO2e) by 2030, not the 62 million tons now required by state law. Following publication of the report, more than fifty environmental and social-justice organizations signed a letter urging the AQCC to take aggressive action to close this 25-million-ton “emissions gap.”
”Our organizations may differ in our theories of change, membership, tactics, and even how we believe we can close this emissions gap,” the letter reads. “However, we are united in our commitment to meeting or exceeding the emissions goals and that the Air Quality Control Commission must take immediate, urgent action to put Colorado on track to meet these goals. We have a critical window of opportunity to make climate progress in Colorado a reality.”
The letter is significant in that its signatories include both hard-line anti-fracking groups like Colorado Rising, which led the campaign for a failed 2018 ballot initiative calling for severe setback restrictions on new oil and gas drilling, and more mainstream voices like the Environmental Defense Fund, which has faced criticism for a stance on oil and gas development that some activists consider too accommodating. As the February 20 AQCC meeting approached, a wide range of organizations agreed to set their differences aside and send a unified message to the Polis administration: The state needs to get more aggressive, fast.
“It’s an unprecedented breadth and depth of alignment within the Colorado environmental community,” Nichols says. “I think it reflects how serious this is, and it also reflects an understanding that we need the governor to step up and embrace this responsibility.”
"In just over a year, this administration is making important gains on our commitment towards addressing climate change," a spokesperson for Polis says in a statement to Westword. "We are over two-thirds of the way to the 2025 goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions [by 26 percent]. We are excited about what else we can accomplish throughout the remainder of the Governor’s term given that we are off to a strong start.”
But several AQCC commissioners, too, have voiced concerns with the time frame of the rulemaking process, particularly since it appears unlikely that the administration will move forward with major new climate rules before the completion of a “roadmap” for emissions reductions currently being drafted by the Colorado Energy Office. That report won’t be finalized until September at the earliest, agency director Will Toor told commissioners at the February 20 meeting.
“The intent of the roadmap,” Toor said, “is to take input from the public and the commission and others on the strategies we should be evaluating, and then do a thoughtful, evidence-based modeling approach to understand those strategies and come back with recommendations for further steps.”
It's not just environmental activists who are growing more concerned about climate policy — a poll released on February 20 by Colorado College's State of the Rockies Project found that 70 percent of Colorado voters see climate change as a "serious problem," up from 63 percent in 2016. Similar percentages of respondents told pollsters that they're concerned about the environmental impacts of oil and gas development and support a transition to 100 percent clean energy.
Polis ran on a promise to put Colorado on a path to 100 percent renewable electricity generation by 2040, and pledges by major electric utilities like Xcel Energy and Tri-State have put that goal within reach. But reducing emissions from transportation, natural-gas heating and other sectors has proven much more challenging, and analyses like the M.J. Bradley report cast doubt on whether the state's incremental, market-based reforms will be enough to achieve its goals. With the clock ticking, activists say it's time for regulatory bodies like the AQCC to begin flexing their muscles.
“They understand the problem,” Nichols says of state officials. “But I’m disappointed that the administration is not driving more momentum and empowering the [AQCC] to rise to the challenge. The buck stops with the governor, and the governor is not sending the right signals.”