There’s growing frustration among impatient environmentalists with Colorado Gov. Jared Polis’ climate leadership, saying the Democrat — who campaigned in 2018 on a promise to fully move the state to renewable energy by 2040 — needs to act faster and more aggressively.
And while Polis recently touted the progress of his roadmap to lower greenhouse gas emissions, the state’s own projections show Colorado is on pace to get only about halfway to its stated goals for the years 2025 and 2030.
When the state legislature returns to the Capitol next month, members of Polis’ party plan to introduce a broad package of climate bills that’s unprecedented in his tenure. Some proposed policies are meant to put the squeeze on him to force action on stronger regulations and emissions cuts.
The call for action comes as Colorado faces record heat, extreme drought, an ongoing water crisis and the three biggest wildfires in state history. Scientists say it’s all a product of climate change, and Dan Gibbs, director of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources, told The Denver Post in the fall that he fears 2020 was a preview of a “very troubling and, frankly, terrifying” future.
The 2019 state law that was supposed to establish Colorado’s strategy for long-term climate action has, in the eyes of many lawmakers and outside groups, led to little tangible progress. And the fundamental conflict at the Colorado Capitol, where all levels of government are controlled by Democrats, is whether to tackle this problem through complex and strict regulatory schemes, which requires more staffers than the state says it has and often leads to lawsuits, or through a hybrid system that’s heavy on incentives versus mandates.
Generally speaking, Polis has favored free-market solutions while environmentalists and some Democratic lawmakers believe tighter regulation will promote swifter and more effective action. Two environmentalist groups have also sued Polis, alleging that the state missed a 2020 deadline to propose emissions-cutting regulations.
“I think because it is so existential it is difficult to get the opposing parties to work with one another,” Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, said. “You have one group that is living in reality and another group that is thinking about our future. And they’re both well-intentioned.”
The latter group, as she defines it, is poised to directly challenge Polis in 2021.
What’s on tap in the statehouse
Sen. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat and former climate organizer, said she’s working on a bill that would, among other things, expand the enforcement authority of the state’s Air Quality Control Commission and give it more staff that’d be paid for by higher fees on polluters.
She is adamant that it won’t promote “cap and trade,” which is a policy to incentivize lower emissions while still letting companies that reach the cap to buy allowances to go over. The governor’s office is highly wary of any such proposal.
Winter said the point of her bill is to strengthen Polis’ roadmap, which environmental groups increasingly view as toothless.
“I’m working with them,” Winter said of the administration. “They’re not on board. … I’m hopeful we can get to a place where it’s not a full battle.”
In a statement provided to The Denver Post, Polis spokesman Conor Cahill said his office had not seen the bill — it’s still being drafted — but offered several reasons why Polis might oppose certain climate legislation to come.
“The Governor strongly supports the legislative work described in the Greenhouse Gas Roadmap plan. Other legislation would have to meet the objectives of the roadmap without diverting efforts, hurting the economy, or reducing the ability of the state to reach our aggressive clean energy goals,” Cahill said. He added that “racial equity and economic justice” are key to the governor’s climate priorities.
Interviews with about a dozen lawmakers indicate Winter’s bill will be one in a slew of proposals; others include reducing emissions in the transportation and building sectors; lowering tax rates to incentivize battery storage of solar and wind energy in a state where more than half of its electricity still comes from coal; plugging leaks of the powerful greenhouse gas methane at mines, landfills and agricultural facilities; and bolstering resources for the state Public Utilities Commission, which, like the Air Quality Control Commission, has been tasked by the legislature with a large workload but has limited resources to take it on.
Much of that legislation will likely pass, some with bipartisan support. It’s mandated change that gets much trickier, both with more moderate Democrats and with Polis.
His “bold, progressive” campaign rhetoric and his current actions, which are often at odds with leftist priorities, have frustrated many who fancy themselves bold progressives.
He was a champion for immigrant rights as a five-term member of Congress, then a moderate roadblock here to immigrant rights legislation in 2019. Progressive fiscal policy experts believe the state’s tax code is fundamentally inequitable, and Polis has stood apart from Democratic lawmakers by supporting an income tax cut they view as counterproductive.
But the legislature is also changing, with 17 more Democrats in the House than Republicans and a recently expanded majority (20-15) in the Senate. It’s also a more progressive governing body than in years past, and a growing number of Republicans are more open to acknowledging and acting on climate change, albeit strongly resistant to increased regulation of fossil fuel industries that contribute to warming.
“As much as I and every elected official out there would like to say we’re always standing true for the right thing, when voter attitudes shift and your district is looking at things differently — sometimes that gets your attention,” said GOP Sen. Dennis Hisey of Fountain, who is co-sponsoring the battery storage bill. “It took an evolution for me to get to where, yes, we do have a (climate) problem, and there is something we can do about it.”
Zenzinger said she prefers the governor’s approach of incentivizing change rather than forcing it. On the topic of climate change, she said, many simply aren’t willing to be patient or to trust the process.
She also said she worries about the trajectory of the legislature, now more hardline than at any point since she arrived in 2013.
“I think it’s the current mix of legislators that we have at the Capitol who feel very passionate and very justified in making these things happen, who tend to adopt this all-or-nothing attitude,” she said.
She is one of the more business-friendly Democrats, and business groups are keeping close watch on climate bills — and what they portend for job creation or losses. The Colorado Chamber of Commerce voiced concerns last week with Polis’ roadmap and called for “realistic, achievable and market-driven” solutions.
Conservation Colorado Executive Director Kelly Nordini said it’s time for that “bold climate leadership” Polis promised.
“They’ve spent 18 months on the roadmap,” she said. “OK, we have it now. It’s time to get on track.”
And AFL-CIO of Colorado Executive Director Dennis Dougherty told The Post his members, including 185 different unions, are willing to support upcoming climate legislation as long as it doesn’t harm workers.
“This session truly will be the testing ground for that,” he said. “Our hope is that, with these bills that are coming, that they help realize the vision of the roadmap, but also take care of workers in the communities in which they reside.”
That’s another lingering item on Colorado’s climate to-do list. In 2019, the legislature created an Office of Just Transition in 2019 to help workers employed in the fossil fuel industry.
Two years later, it has not been funded at all. It’s expected to cost millions per year, and 2021 will likely be pivotal in determining just how serious the state is about putting resources behind it. Plus, President Joe Biden has pledged to focus on climate change, which includes transitioning to clean energy.
But in Colorado, Polis’ willingness to bend notwithstanding, it’s really up to the legislature to push for bold action, said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, the primary liaison between the governor’s office and the Senate Democratic caucus.
“We need to remind ourselves that if we can’t get something done through the legislature because we don’t have the votes, then we can’t blame the governor’s office,” he said.
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