From Blue Wave to Green Sweep: Can CO’s Democratic Supermajority Save the Future?

Published on: April 25th, 2019

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Polis Signs SB191 into law

Can Colorado lead the nation – as we have in so many other areas – by passing significant climate change legislation and demonstrating to naysayers across the country that, yes, we can create vibrant new industries while quitting our addictions and saving the planet, and our species, for generations to come? Some are hopeful, many are not. We’ve passed the tipping point. The only question now is: how bad will it be?

A 2014 Chicago Council Survey found that most Americans were not extremely concerned about climate change and did not see it as a threat; simultaneously half of Americans said that the government is not doing enough to deal with the problem. Over 70 percent of Americans support the US participating in an international treaty to address climate change, yet June 1 of 2017 President Trump announced that the US would withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement that was predicated on a global response to addressing the issue. Nearly 30 percent of citizens don’t believe climate change is real. Yale.edu reported that “seventy percent of Americans now accept that climate change is happening, outnumbering those who don’t…Yet few Americans, 6 percent, say they believe nations can and will successfully combat climate change”.

Erik Solheim, the head of the U.N. Environment Programme, points out in a statement in Oct 2017 that, “…we still find ourselves in a situation where we are not doing nearly enough to save hundreds of millions of people from a miserable future.” The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change offers suggestions for how the world can get on track to a cleaner, more sustainable future. It claims that with a heavy investment in solar and wind energy, dramatic increases in the efficiency of appliances, electrification and hybridization of cars, and the development of new forests around the globe; we may be able to set the world on a course to keep global warming below 2 °C — but only if those initiatives are implemented globally before 2030.

To be clear: the IPCC report is dire, and there are more damning reports out there (see: Deep Adaptation report), but even where the IPCC report suggests we can avert the extinction of our species and climate catastrophe, this is predicated on concrete, clear, decisive global action now. As in right now.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis campaigned on transitioning Colorado to full renewables by 2040, a target 10 years too late and a project completely underwhelming and ineffective for the problem at hand. Colorado’s democratic supermajority is currently debating new climate change legislation; the “Just Transition” plan, according to Denver’s Westword, House Bill 1261 is officially titled the Climate Action Plan To Reduce Pollution.

Is HB 1261 enough?

The consensus is all over the place regarding human effect on climate change, a product of a failed education system, lobbying efforts predicated on industry supremacy resulting in politicians actively deceiving the public about the situation, and a complicit media. Colorado meanwhile has been known as environmentally aware and progressive in eco-green and healthy trends. We pride ourselves on our outdoors industries, the beauty of our skies, the height of our mountains, our lakes, trails, and streams. Our new logo, unveiled by the governor, is our famous C logo with a cute tree behind it. There was arguably more furor over the logo change than the hypocrisy of a Colorado that simultaneously embraces the outdoors motif while sitting on its hands in the face of climate change.

At this point it is going to take more than a catchy trend or a cute logo to veer onto a sustainable path forward.

Climate change is a global issue and each nation, providence, and state should be making efforts to meet the demands of change. Globally, we’re an old man who has been smoking his whole life, refusing to put down the cigarette but not wanting to die. To continue the metaphor, at best, we’re switching to tobacco vapes and snuff, but not willing to quit entirely. Our addictions are killing us. Colorado – it must be said – is addicted. To oil and gas. To pipelines. To natural gas.

In a widely read report published in the Guardian, a study proved that just 100 countries were responsible for 71 percent of climate change. Of those, 99 are oil and gas companies. One is a cement company. As a society we know what the issue is but…we’re lighting up that cigarette and ignoring the consequences.

As a state, what is Colorado doing now that there is a democratic supermajority? Is there any real difference from stop gap, kicking the can down the road measures or are we still heading into dirtier days with the booming oil and gas industry?

Former Governor John Hickenlooper announced revisions to the state’s climate plan in early Jan of 2018 at a symposium on clean energy and climate change. In the revisions he called for a new rule on reporting greenhouse gas emissions that mirrored a federal rule, working with utilities to increase the use of renewable energy, and building more charging stations for electric vehicles. Since a growing body of research suggests that the changing climate and subsequently warmer winters will drastically shrink the snowpack in mountain states such as Colorado; the update also proposed that climate variability be included in statewide water planning and forest management practices.

Not to confuse Hickenlooper with an environmentalist, he has been widely blasted by the green lobby, environmental activists, and community advocates as Chickenlooper (a reference to his inability and unwillingness to stand up to the oil and gas industry or, worse, to stand up for the citizens of Colorado) and – even more on the head – Frackenlooper. In a recent Mother Jones article asking, “Is John Hickenlooper the Fracking Candidate? His signature climate achievement isn’t doing much for the climate”, Rebecca Leber wrote that, “Hickenlooper represents the uncomfortable balancing act that a Democratic candidate who has had close ties with the fossil fuel industry must sustain when trying to demonstrate his concern with the threat of climate change.”

Giddy up Hick’s efforts to balance his love of geology and his understanding as the industry as “environmentalists at heart” in hopes of getting both sides – oil and gas and actual environmentalists – on the same page and erase his profoundly anti-earth legacy, aren’t doing much. “None of [it] is enough to remove the nickname ‘Frackenlooper’ that his environmental critics bestowed on him for his long-held position, described in his 2016 memoir, of fracking as good for the country’s energy supply, our national security, our economy, and our environment.’”

On the heels of Hickenlooper’s efforts in office, Governor Polis as a candidate and as Colorado’s new governor pushes the goal of producing 100 percent of Colorado’s power from renewable sources by 2040. “In the absence of national leadership, states like Colorado, along with local governments and private and public companies, are leading the way on climate,” Polis said at a news conference in Jan 2019 when announcing his executive order aimed at putting more electric and zero-emission vehicles on the state’s roads. While Polis’ intent is well received, many maintain a realistic view point. Infrastructure upgrades need to be considered. An average an electric vehicle increases household electricity consumption by about 30 percent. Support for rural areas will be critical to handle growing energy loads. And the political will hasn’t been there to truly overhaul entrenched systems in the first place.

Colorado’s current electricity mix is only 18.28 percent wind and solar and 78.2 percent fossil fuels. Polis’ bold goal has been discouraged and denounced by republicans across the state, claiming that an overly aggressive measure would be damaging to constituents. Yet an analysis recently released by Vibrant Clean Energy called the “Colorado Coal Retirement Study”, concluded that by retiring its fleet of coal-fired power plants while increasing electric sector jobs in renewables, the state could save more than $2.5 billion through 2040 and eliminate 510 metric tons of emissions. Supporters emphasize that bills have been introduced that would offset job training in communities directly impacted by the shutdown of coal-fired power plants.

By remaining proactive and anticipating problems created by this transition, Polis’ plan has the opportunity to create good-paying renewable energy jobs for Coloradans while phasing out the use of fossil fuels, reducing emissions, and updating infrastructure to support the 100 percent renewable goal.

 

First Steps: SB19-181

 

The good news is the state has already taken steps to signal to oil and gas that change is coming. The passing of SB19-181 “Protect Public Welfare Oil and Gas Operations” bill was an incredible half step in the right direction. Before anyone gets upset at our description of the bill as a half step, let’s be clear: the world cannot handle any more fracking, any more methane leaks, any more oil spills, any more carbon creation. The world is past the tipping point and the only reasonable legislation – the only legislation of oil and gas that goes far enough to save the planet and our species – is legislation that either outright ends oil and gas operations or mandates net negative impacts.

Colorado Rising, a statewide environmental activist group “started by local people and grassroots groups across the state who are dedicated to protecting our communities from the hazards of oil and gas development and fracking to public health and safety” put out a statement in neutral support of the bill, a testament to that fact that it’s in the right direction, but not the right amount. The official position of Colorado Rising in regard to the bill is that, “While Colorado Rising is currently taking a neutral stance on SB-19-181, this bill is a very important step towards empowering communities. If the legislature can pass it without watering it down or creating loopholes [which they did], the bill will help protect the health and safety of countless Coloradans. It is vitally important to provide immediate relief to communities instead of stubbornly waiting for a 100% perfect bill. We are encouraged that this bill will better preserve our land, air, water and reduce our contribution to climate change. Passage of this bill will also give Coloradans a better legal footing for future interactions with the oil and gas industry.”

The better footing point is important, as it points to the ability to use this precedent for further, more effective legislative action. Colorado Rising Communications Director Ann Lee Foster says that, “While it would be immoral and unconscionable not to pass this bill, it does not go far enough to protect communities from dangerous oil and gas […] This bill leaves much work to be done in regards to enforcement, accountability and establishing definitive health and safety protections.”

In a press release dated April 16th, the day Governor Polis signed SB19-181, Colorado Rising said, “While SB-181 does not address all of the concerns and threats associated with industrial fracking activity, it is a desperately needed tipping back of enormously unbalanced scales in favor of people and environment. SB-181 is the most substantial shift we have seen in decades and puts communities on much better footing when confronted with industrial oil and gas in their backyards.”

Regarding the loopholes and amendments our Democratic majority allowed, Colorado Rising said, “Despite some concerning amendments, SB-181 is still a step in the right direction. There were some very obvious loopholes granted to industry. Rulemaking will be critical in protecting Coloradans [sic] and making sure 181 fulfills the new mandate of prioritizing health and safety.”

Following the signing of 181 into law, 350 Colorado – an independent state affiliate of 350.org, a global organization building a movement to solve the climate crisis – sent out emails detailing next steps, including: working on a toolkit to help local communities pass moratoriums while rulemaking commences. The toolkit will be publicly available next week, pushing for good rulemaking at the state level (through COGCC, AQCC) and in our communities, keeping community posted when hearings are scheduled and sharing talking points and other action opportunities, and continuing education efforts of public officials, community members and students of the dangers of oil and gas drilling & climate change.

 

A Turning point

 

The oil and gas industry has had drastic influence over the political and regulatory process in Colorado over the last several years. With Xcel Energy’s recent commitment to a carbon-free energy grid by 2050 and the now democratic trifecta in place, it seems 2019 maybe the turning point for Colorado’s inaction on climate change. Conservation Colorado’s top priorities for state leaders in 2019 include goals for fighting climate change and advancing energy job innovation by utilizing a just transition to improve the state’s energy usage, move toward 100 percent renewables, and create a reduction in carbon pollution.

In addition, Conservation Colorado is emphasizing creation of a plan to achieve one million electric vehicles on Colorado roads by 2030 by setting clean car standards and locating funding for transportation planning and efficiency.

 

HB 1261: What is it?

 

The official title of this bill is “Climate Action Plan To Reduce Pollution

Concerning the reduction of greenhouse gas pollution, and, in connection therewith, establishing statewide greenhouse gas pollution reduction goals and making an appropriation.”

Section 1 of the bill, as posted on the state’s legislative website, leg.colorado.gov, “states that Colorado shall have statewide goals to reduce 2025 greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26%, 2030 greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50%, and 2050 greenhouse gas emissions by at least 90% of the levels of greenhouse gas emissions that existed in 2005.” It would, essentially, “put Colorado on track to meet greenhouse gas reductions goals similar to those set out in the 2015 Paris climate agreement, lawmakers say, slashing emissions from an array of sources, such as transportation, electricity generation and oil and gas drilling,” according to a report on the bill from the Colorado Independent in March 2019.

Polis’ prod the industry, it is reported, clashes with KC Becker’s demand approach. An environmental lawyer by trade, she’s looking at serious and enforceable mandates. In an interview with the Independent she says, “The governor’s office, he’s generally saying, ‘Oh, let’s just see if this happens on its own. Typically none of this happens voluntarily.” That level of undermining from the Governor’s office doesn’t bode well for the legislation introduced. It means, essentially, the legislation will have possible been scaled back, that the teeth may have been removed, and that loopholes will most likely have been introduced, as we saw with SB19-181.

As expected, the Independent found that “This new goal is still short of what scientists say is needed to avoid irreversible climate change, which in Colorado is expected to result in more intense heat waves, droughts and wildfires.” We have more climate catastrophe to look forward to, if this is correct. The UN IPCC report discussed earlier points out that “the only way to ensure global temperatures don’t rise above 1.5 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) — the point at which climate change becomes irreversible — is to have net zero emissions by 2050.” The world is not on track to meet this goal. Colorado is not on track to meet this goal.

 

Final Thoughts: Not enough

 

It seems that Colorado is taking a leading position in addressing climate change issues by directly creating and passing legislation. That in itself is hopeful, but the oil and gas legislation signed into law and the climate change legislation under consideration are both inadequate to reckon with the future calamities expected as climate change worsens.

We’ll look back on this era as the death throes of a profoundly greedy, intellectually failed, morally vacuous society. The worst part is knowing that the billionaires who own the companies that created the mess – along with complicit politicians – will probably be the ones most likely to survive. The future is uncertain, climate change is here, our global response is submission to our addictions – to oil and gas, to consumption, to greed –  and so we take another puff off that cigarette as the disease of our addiction takes over. Colorado may be taking steps in the right direction, half steps, but – should anyone still be unclear about this – that is no way to rise to the challenge we face.

On April 16, the day Governor Polis signed SB19-181 into law – HB 1261 was approved. It was on an expected party line vote, 41-23, and it now heads to the Senate with 17 days left before the May 3 adjournment.  

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