Greens tee off on Democrat’s climate plan

Source: By Benjamin Storrow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, January 18, 2021

Jared Polis announced his campaign for Colorado governor in front of a solar coffee roaster in 2017. Three years later, he is under growing pressure from environmentalists to deliver on his promise to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2040.

Polis, a Democrat, provided an answer to those critics yesterday by unveiling a plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions 50% by 2030. His proposal includes deep carbon cuts in the power sector, slashing methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, and encouraging companies to let employees work at home.

Yet it failed to win over many of his critics. Environmentalists said it came after two years of delays, did little to address environmental justice concerns and provided scant assurances for how Colorado would meet its climate goals.

In an interview with E&E News, Polis said the plan was developed with extensive public input, and he noted that the state will release a report on how to incorporate environmental justice concerns into the climate strategy later this month.

He also expressed optimism that the incoming Biden administration and new Democratic-controlled Congress would provide a boost to state climate efforts.

“It’s a whole new day for the relationship of states like Colorado that lead on climate with a federal government that wants to help,” Polis said. “So we’re extremely excited by the almost unlimited potential to work with our federal partners and very excited about the potential for green infrastructure package.”

He highlighted electric vehicle charging infrastructure, transit and affordable housing as areas where federal funds would bolster Colorado’s climate work.

Polis ran as a climate champion in 2018. That won him praise among greens and helped him win the election that fall.

But Polis has found himself increasingly at odds with environmental groups. The state Legislature passed a climate package in 2019 that essentially directed state agencies to outline and adopt policies for reducing emissions. When state regulators failed to produce an emissions road map within a year, as required by law, environmental groups sued to force action (Climatewire, June 24, 2020).

The road map released yesterday is the first step in meeting those concerns. The plan in large part relies on an 80% reduction in power-sector emissions over the next decade, with most cuts coming in the form of planned coal plant retirements.

It calls for new regulations to drive a 60% reduction in oil and gas production emissions. And it envisions a 40% reduction in greenhouse gases from the transportation sector, through support for vehicle electrification, public transit and incentives to encourage companies to offer employees the option to work from home.

Many greens were unimpressed.

More than 20 environmental groups said in a statement that Colorado has taken too little action to reduce emissions over the last two years, especially in communities ringing power plants and industrial sites.

The state’s decision to release its equity report after the fact suggests environmental justice concerns aren’t central to Colorado’s climate efforts, they said.

“Environmental racism is not holding polluters accountable, it is overwhelming communities with bureaucratic processes that are only meant to check boxes, and othering our communities by not giving us equal protection under the law,” Lucy Molina, a Commerce City resident who lives near a refinery operated by Suncor, said in a statement. “Justice isn’t charity — we have rights to a healthy environment.”

Polis, for his part, said the equity report would be a “comprehensive planning document about addressing systemic injustices and exposure to pollutants.”

“This, really centered in our climate and pollution reduction plan, is the disproportionate impact that contaminants and pollutants have had in low-income communities,” he said.

The governor said he wants to prioritize further emissions cuts in the power sector, calling the state’s 80% goal a floor rather than a ceiling.

“Really, a key underpinning of this is our success to date and our coming successes in the utility sector, and then electrification” of other economic sectors, Polis said.

Yet greens noted that many of the planned coal retirements would come after 2025. That includes the Craig plant, Colorado’s largest carbon dioxide emitter, which will be gradually shut down between 2025 and 2030. And the plan is silent on the fate of Comanche 3, the largest and newest unit at the massive Xcel Energy coal plant outside Pueblo, which is scheduled to run well past 2030.

Waiting to shutter coal plants until later in the decade might produce a large drop in emissions in 2030, but it would allow for a large amount of pollution until then, environmentalists said.

“I still don’t see any analysis of cumulative impact of Colorado’s emissions over the course of a decade. You can’t have a true analysis of a climate mitigation strategy without accounting for the cumulative impact of your strategies,” said Pam Kiely, who leads state policy at the Environmental Defense Fund. “At the end of the day, what matters is how much pollution you emit over time.”

The plan was greeted with cautious optimism from the oil and gas industry. Will Toor, executive director of the Colorado Energy Office, said the state’s goal to cut emissions by 12 million tons reflected the pledges that energy companies made to investors. New technology makes it easier to identify and address fugitive emissions than in the past, he said.

Dan Haley, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, said the industry preferred the voluntary approach but pledged to work with the governor to meet the state’s climate goals.

“I think the targets that are set out are aggressive, but we share the governor’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. “We share the same values that Coloradans have that want to continue to breathe clean air in our state. So we will set about working to achieve these targets.”

That support stands in sharp contrast to Polis’ past relationship with the oil and gas industry. As a congressman, Polis allied himself with activists opposed to oil and gas development and offered financial support to local initiatives to limit drilling. He later backed away from those efforts.

As governor, Polis has pursued rules to eliminate routine venting and flaring, the practice of burning off excess natural gas into the atmosphere (Energywire, Nov. 24, 2020).

But his tenure in Denver has perhaps been marked more by criticism from environmentalists than from energy producers.

Asked to respond, Polis said, “There’s strategy in the document and work under way, Colorado Oil and Gas [Conservation] Commission, Air Quality Control Commission, that is being done to ensure that the extraction industry meets the aggressive goals in the road map.”

State regulators are expected to begin a rulemaking on oil- and gas-sector emissions later this year.