Climate goals, Hickenlooper’s legacy hang in the balance

Source: Benjamin Storrow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Colorado finds itself at a climate crossroads following a pair of major decisions to close coal plants and adopt clean car standards.

The Centennial State will need to do more work to ultimately realize the 26 percent cut in carbon dioxide emissions established by Gov. John Hickenlooper (D). But further progress may hinge on the outcome of this November’s gubernatorial contest, where U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (D) and state Treasurer Walker Stapleton (R) are vying to replace Hickenlooper, who is term-limited.

Polis has campaigned on a 100 percent renewable pledge, while Stapleton has implored oil and gas interests to support his campaign (Climatewire, July 31).

“Everything that this administration and the Ritter administration has done are on the line in this election if Colorado wants to see its clean energy economy grow,” said Noah Long, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, referring to Hickenlooper and his predecessor, Bill Ritter (D). “If you really want the full benefit of the clean energy economy, you need good policy to support it.”

Colorado greens say the two decisions announced in recent months represent a step toward the state’s climate goals.

First came Hickenlooper’s announcement that the state was initiating the process to adopt California’s vehicle tailpipe standards (E&E News PM, June 19). Then, this month, Colorado regulators approved a plan from Xcel Energy Inc., the state’s largest utility, to close two coal-burning units and replace their power with wind and solar.

Carbon emissions figure to decline thanks to the moves. The decision to close two of Comanche Generating Station’s three coal units as part of Xcel’s Colorado Energy Plan is projected to cut 4.5 million tons of carbon annually, according to state regulators. That’s about 11 percent of Colorado’s total power-sector emissions.

As for the clean car standards, NRDC estimates they will annually prevent 2.4 million tons of carbon emissions by 2030, compared with the state’s current trajectory.

“I would say both of these decisions, the Colorado Energy Plan as well as the low-emission vehicle standard, are tremendous steps forward for Colorado, both in terms of the pollution benefits but also the optics side of things,” said Jessica Goad, assistant director of Conservation Colorado. “The Colorado Energy Plan showed to the world that renewables were cheaper than coal, which was huge.”

But considerable work remains. To meet the target established in Hickenlooper’s executive order last year, the state’s carbon emissions will need to fall from 123 million tons in 2005 to 91 million tons in 2025. The order also called for a 25 percent cut in power-sector emissions from 2012 levels by 2025 and a 35 percent reduction by 2030.

Carbon emissions were 130 million tons in 2010, according to the state’s most recent greenhouse gas inventory.

“I think it’s fair to say there is an exciting change taking place in the power sector, and the goals outlined by Gov. Hickenlooper for the power sector are attainable,” said Zach Pierce, a senior campaign manager for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal initiative. “But if you’re looking economywide, it’s a lot more challenging, and we need to raise the ambition in the transportation.”

Yet even the power sector figures to be tricky. While renewables are expected to account for 55 percent of Xcel’s system by 2023, Colorado remains highly reliant on coal. The black mineral represented 55 percent of the state’s electricity capacity in 2016.

And it’s not immediately clear other utilities in the state will follow Xcel’s lead, said Erin Overturf, an attorney at Western Resource Advocates who helped negotiate the plan to close the Comanche units.

Black Hills Energy, the state’s other investor-owned utility, has a system that’s reliant on natural gas. And the state’s coal-reliant electric power cooperatives are not regulated today by the Public Utilities Commission.

“The Colorado Energy Plan was an example of an amazing collaboration that occurred in the context of a litigated proceeding in front of a utility regulator,” Overturf said. “That could be replicable, but it is not clear what the pathway is for other utilities that are not currently subject to PUC oversight.”

The future of the clean car standards is similarly uncertain. Hickenlooper initially directed state agencies to develop a plan to adopt California’s tailpipe standards, but it notably lacked zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) targets that would establish minimum sales thresholds for electric vehicles. After a public outcry, the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission agreed to consider a zero-emission vehicle standard in December.

That has the potential to deliver a large climate benefit. Western Resource Advocates projects that a 1-million-car ZEV standard would reduce emissions 2 million tons in 2030 if the cars were largely powered by renewables.

Ultimately, though, it will be up to Hickenlooper’s successor to decide whether to adopt the target.

In some ways, the clean car standard is emblematic of Hickenlooper’s time in office, greens say. It marks important progress but still leaves something to be desired. The Colorado governor is rumored to be a Democratic presidential contender in 2020. How Democrats view his climate credentials may well depend on whether Hickenlooper’s successor builds on his achievements.