Colorado governor storms into governorship with zero-carbon promise

Source: Benjamin Storrow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, January 14, 2019

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) promised yesterday to make the state’s electricity 100 percent clean by 2040, and he committed to end a persistent fight over fracking between oil companies and their residential neighbors.

Polis headlines a crop of new Democratic governors who made supporting renewables and climate action a centerpiece of their campaigns last fall (Climatewire, Nov. 8, 2018). Speaking yesterday to the Legislature in his first State of the State address, Polis listed climate change as a priority, alongside education and lowering health care costs.

He sought to frame the issue not only as a threat to the state’s ranchers and its ski industry, but as an opportunity to grow Colorado’s clean energy sector.

“We will work with stakeholders across Colorado on outcomes-based approaches that promote innovation and that deliver emissions reductions from all sources, reductions in consumer costs and sustainable economic growth for communities across Colorado,” Polis said as lawmakers cheered.

A former congressman from Boulder, Polis arrives in Denver with a new Democratic majority in the state Senate, giving the party control of all three branches of state government.

The governor spoke mostly in generalities, but he gave some clues about what he might do with his political majorities. He signaled support for a bill that would pave the way for power companies to close coal plants early.

The measure, the “Colorado Energy Impact Assistance Act,” would guarantee low-interest bonds issued by power companies to pay down outstanding debt on their coal plants. Funding would be set aside to help the communities where the closed plants are located.

“Creative financing mechanisms that exist today can ensure that consumers pay lower rates as we move to renewables and help provide for a transition that is just and fair both for workers and for communities directly impacted,” Polis said.

Paying down the remaining debt on the state’s coal plants figures to be a key hurdle for Polis. Xcel Energy Inc., the state’s largest utility, recently committed to closing two coal units early and replacing their power with renewables (Climatewire, May 7, 2018). The utility then pledged to zero out its carbon emissions by midcentury (Climatewire, Dec. 5, 2018). And a growing number of the state’s rural electric cooperatives want more renewables (Climatewire, Dec. 11, 2018).

But Colorado remains firmly reliant on coal, with more than half the state’s power coming from the black mineral as recently as 2016.

Polis also hinted at wading into the contentious fracking wars that have consumed the state in recent years. The new governor has had a tenuous relationship with oil companies and anti-fracking activists alike.

He supported two local initiatives in 2014 to ban fracking, only to abandon the proposals after striking a deal with his predecessor, former Gov. John Hickenlooper (D). Polis also opposed a failed ballot proposal last fall that would have increased the distance between drilling rigs and dwellings.

“It’s time for us to take meaningful action to address the conflicts between oil and gas drilling operations and the neighborhoods they impact, and to make sure that all of our communities have clean air and water,” Polis said yesterday, calling it “a vital quality-of-life issue for Colorado families.”