From the day he announced his candidacy outside a solar-powered coffee shop in June 2017, Governor Jared Polis put renewable-electricity goals at the top of his agenda — but throughout the campaign, he offered few details about his plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from other sources. A little over a week into his governorship, that’s starting to change.
On Thursday, January 17, Polis signed his first executive order as governor, directing state agencies to take a variety of steps to help accelerate Colorado’s transition to electric vehicles. Most notably, it directs the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to adopt a Zero Emissions Vehicle mandate, which requires automakers to sell a certain number of electric vehicles as a percentage of their overall sales.
“Despite the fact that Colorado has some of the highest consumer preference for electric vehicles, many manufacturers don’t sell all of their models here, and instead offer them in states that have adopted the ZEV standard,” said Polis at a press conference outside the Alliance Center in downtown Denver. “We do not want Colorado consumers to be left behind.”
The order is Polis’s first concrete policy initiative targeting greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, which accounts for 23 percent of Colorado’s annual emissions, according to state data. As ambitious as the governor’s renewable-electricity goals may be, successfully mitigating climate change won’t be possible in the long term without the mass electrification of vehicles and transit networks.
"Colorado is a national leader in fighting greenhouse gas pollution from power plants,” Erin Overturf, a clean-energy expert with Western Resource Advocates, said in a statement. “But the science is clear that we must also reduce pollution from cars and trucks if we want to avoid the most devastating impacts of climate change. Governor Polis’s executive order will allow us to leverage Colorado’s increasingly green electricity generation fleet to achieve further and compounding reductions in pollutants from the transportation sector.”
Polis’s order goes one step further than one signed by former Governor John Hickenlooper in 2018, which directed the CDPHE to adopt Low Emissions Vehicle standards for gas-powered cars. Following public input in support of a ZEV rule, the CDPHE was already scheduled to consider such a rule at a hearing in May; Polis’s order removes any doubt of its adoption, and directs the agency to develop and finalize the rule by October.
That will make Colorado the eleventh state to adopt a ZEV mandate, an early version of which was first established by California Air Resources Board in 1990. Though they vary from state to state, the rules are designed to encourage electric vehicle adoption by requiring automakers to sell an increasing percentage of electric vehicles over time. In California, that percentage was 4.5 percent in 2018 and will rise to 22 percent by 2025. But in practice, it’s not that simple; automakers are allowed to meet ZEV requirements through a complicated system of credits that can be traded, banked or otherwise manipulated.
Creating a ZEV mandate is a natural first step for a governor whose administration could be defined by Colorado’s long-running conflicts over environmental and energy issues. Thornier subjects, like the health and climate impacts of oil and gas extraction along the Front Range, remain. And some activists were quick to stress that while Thursday’s announcement was welcome news, Polis's mandate won't be nearly enough.
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"This is a tiny baby step in the right direction that hopefully signals that an adult response to the global climate crisis is forthcoming from Governor Polis,” says Colorado environmental activist Gary Wockner. “Everyone is watching."
Thursday’s executive order also creates a “transportation electrification workgroup” to coordinate efforts across multiple state agencies, and directs the Colorado Department of Transportation to develop a clean transportation plan of its own. Finally, it orders that the remainder of Colorado’s $68.7 million settlement in the Volkswagen emissions scandal be put toward transportation electrification initiatives across the state.
Details of Colorado’s ZEV mandate won’t be known until the CDPHE drafts the rule later this year, but the rule is certain to dramatically increase the number of electric vehicle models that are available in Colorado. That will help the state meet or exceed its goal of putting more than 930,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2030 — or more than 15 percent of all light-duty passenger vehicles in the state.
“We’re excited about making the future work for Colorado,” said Polis at Thursday’s press conference, “and today is a small step in that direction.”