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Environment

Colorado Democrats’ Fight Over Environmental Policy Plays Out in the Headlines

In a recent Colorado Springs Gazette editorial, Governor Jared Polis threatened to veto a new environmental justice bill. But some lawmakers say his reason why makes no sense—and will harm vulnerable communities.

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Every so often, Governor Jared Polis turns to intense anecdotes. During a November press conference, he compared attending Thanksgiving dinner to “bringing a loaded pistol to Grandma’s head.” His most recent use of strong language, however, has left many Colorado environmentalists confused—and frustrated.

In an April 28 article from the Colorado Springs Gazette’s editorial board, Polis says the passage of Senate Bill 21-200, a piece of legislation that aims to create more resources to help the state meet its pollution reduction goals and work with disproportionately impacted communities while doing so, would give the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission (AQCC) “dictatorial authority” to “nearly destroy or assault our entire economy with a legal mandate to meet certain hard carbon reduction goals.” Polis also said he planned to veto the bill if it reached his desk.

5280 spoke with several proponents of SB 21-200 who argued that both Polis and the Gazette editorial board focused on a section of the bill that doesn’t fundamentally change previous legislation. “It’s really just putting an exclamation point on existing law,” says Matt Gerhart, a staff attorney with the Sierra Club.

Gerhart is talking about House Bill 19-1261, also known as the Climate Action Plan to Reduce Pollution. Polis himself signed the ambitious bill, which sets greenhouse gas pollution reduction goals for Colorado, into law in 2019. By 2050, the Centennial State must achieve a 90 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to 2005 levels. To ensure Colorado reaches that goal, HB 19-1261 provides two checkpoints: By 2025, the state should reach a 26 percent reduction, and by 2030, emissions should be down by 50 percent (both compared, again, to 2005 levels).

HB 19-1261 confers some of the responsibility for meeting those goals on the AQCC, a commission that falls under umbrella of the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment (CDPHE). It gives the AQCC power to make rules and regulations that will help the state achieve its goals.

So far, according to the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap released by the governor’s office earlier this year, Colorado is on a trajectory to fall short of those goals; in fact, it is on track to achieve less than half the emissions reductions outlined in HB 19-1261. That’s part of the reason Colorado State Senator Faith Winter, along with her co-sponsors State Senator Angela Williams, Representative Dominique Jackson, and Representative KC Becker, put together SB 21-200. “We’re giving the Air Quality Control Commission the the ability and resources to meet the variables in the governor’s own roadmap,” Winter says.

Several stakeholders say the AQCC already has the power to make rules and regulations to help Colorado meet the goals set out in HB 19-1261. “HB-1261 is crystal clear that the AQCC has this authority,” Gerhart says. (If you want to dig into all the complexities of the AQCC, check out section 25-7-105, which spells out its duties under HB 19-1261.) But the AQCC has been slow to take on that role. “As we sit here today, I don’t think there is a single rule that the AQCC has issued to implement 1261 and impose actual emission reductions,” Gerhart says.

To be clear, neither Gerhart nor Winter are accusing the AQCC of dragging its feet. Instead, they attribute the slowness to a lack of resources. SB 21-200 would give the AQCC and CDPHE more funding to take on the responsibilities by closing a loophole in AQCC regulations. Currently, the AQCC requires industries to pay a fee for emitting certain types of pollution, like small particulate matter. But it exempts greenhouse gas emission, like carbon dioxide and methane. “We’ve long suggested that treating greenhouse gases like you would other pollutants, such as small particulate matter, would be a way to raise additional financial resources for the CDPHE,” says Erin Overturf, the Clean Energy Program deputy director for Western Resources Advocates, one of the proponents of SB 21-200.

Those extra funds could add up to $15 million a year for the CDPHE and AQCC, Winter says: “It’s merely empowering and giving the resources to the Air Quality Control Commission to be the project manager and make sure we’re meeting our goals outlined in 1261.”

So, Winter is disappointed by Polis’ statements in the Colorado Springs Gazette. “Right now, the greenhouse gas emission reduction goals are based on a lot of wishes and press releases,” she says. “If we aren’t comfortable putting resources and the force of law behind these goals, are we just admitting we’re not going to meet them? That would be devastating to both our state and our world.”

Ean Tafoya, a Colorado-based member of environmental justice nonprofit GreenLatinos, is angered by what he sees as Polis’ decision to put the economy ahead of people. “This has been part of the industry playbook my entire time working on environmental justice,” Tafoya says. “‘The sky will fall, the economy will collapse. But you shouldn’t be in business if you’re harming people.”

And many people are being harmed, Tafoya says, especially the vulnerable communities he advocates for. A January report by Mapping For Environmental Justice shows that low-income communities and communities of color in Colorado breathe nearly twice as much diesel pollution as predominantly white communities. They are also 1.5 times more likely to live near a Superfund site (the name given to the nation’s worst toxic waste locations).

Yet, as Tafoya points out, Polis’ criticism doesn’t address the environmental justice parts of the bill: SB 21-200 creates an environmental justice ombudsperson position and an environmental justice advisory board in the CDPHE, and lays out processes for the AQCC to use when seeking input from communities disproportionately impacted by air pollution. “He just completely wrote us off like what we’re talking about doesn’t matter,” Tafoya says.

Further confusing to environmentalists is Polis’ claim that the AQCC—a group comprised of experts the governor himself appointed—could become dictatorial. “For him to take to dig into his own administration was really shocking,” Tafoya says. And disingenuous, Gerhart says: “Colorado law has administrative procedures that require commissions like the AQCC to look at cost effectiveness,” he says. “HB 19-1216 says the AQCC needs to look at a number of factors during rule-making, like health, the economy, jobs.”

Still, Polis disagrees that enough stopgaps are in place to ensure the AQCC won’t become “one board to rule them all,” Elizabeth Kosar, a spokesperson for the governor, says in a statement to 5280: “Rather than implementing the important strategies laid out in the Colorado Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap, SB 200 would contradict those strategies, apply sector specific caps we have always indicated we are not supportive of, and would undermine and slow down our state’s all-of-government approach towards meeting our ambitious goals by making a single volunteer board responsible for regulating vast swaths of the state’s economy with major ramifications for workers, communities of color, and energy system reliability. We strongly believe the AQCC has an important role to play in meeting our climate goals, but so too does the Public Utilities Commission, the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, as well as the state legislature.”

Both sides of the Democratic divide have said they look forward to working more on this issue. “The Governor and the bill sponsors share the same goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting the Colorado way of life,” Kosar says, “and he appreciates the efforts of bill sponsors.”

Winter, for her part, also hopes to negotiate. But she insists the ultimate goal of SB 21-200 is to make sure more people have input on AQCC rules, not fewer. “Disproportionately impacted communities have not been as involved in these processes as they deserve to be,” she says. “SB 21-200 is increasing transparency and accessibility in making these decisions.”

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