Get Big Pivots

Centennial State has been taking giant strides in decarbonization. But among the 50 states, how exceptional are we? 


by Allen Best

Underlying the efforts of many if not most people in Colorado engaged in the work of reducing emissions from energy to zero or near zero has been a belief that usually goes without articulation. Not only is this important work, really the most important work in the world, and Colorado is among the world leaders.

Will Toor, who directs the Colorado Energy Office, called it a “moment of time” in remarks during a presentation last week at the University of Colorado Law School.

Toor’s resume includes both a Ph.D. in physics and, while much younger, a stint as a sheepherder in northwestern Colorado. Then he got involved in public policy. He was a mayor of Boulder for six years and then a Boulder County commissioner for eight years before director of transportation programs for the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project for six years.

After Jared Polis was elected Colorado governor in 2018, he chose Toor to be a chief architect of his energy transition.

“It has been, I would say, the best job I’ve ever had in my life,” he said at the beginning of the 90-minute program that was given the title of “Colorado’s Climate Future: Legal Pathways to Decarbonization.”

“This is just such a moment in time to be able to be working on clean energy and climate in the state of Colorado. We have a governor who is strongly committed to clean energy and making a difference in climate. We have a legislature that, while we may occasionally have our disagreements between the legislature and the administration, is fundamentally aligned in wanting to make significant progress. And over the last couple of years, we have had a federal administration that has also aligned with that vision. And in particular, through the passage of the (2021) Infrastructure Act and the (2022) Inflation Reduction Act, we have just a historic level of federal resources supporting decarbonization efforts at the state level.”

Then Toor outlined Colorado’s decarbonization efforts of the last five years beginning with the 2019 law that provided targets for greenhouse gas emissions reductions, with key dates of 2030 and 2050.

Also on the panel was Clay Clarke, the climate change program director within the Air Pollution Control Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. He outlined the many rulemakings within that agency, which in many ways has the largest legal lever for implementing actions to achieve those targeted reductions in emissions. The Air Pollution Control Division has enacted many rule-makings in the last four years. Several have been first-time-ever rules among states.

Chris Winter, the relatively new director of the Getches-Wilkinson Center, the third panelist, spoke about issues related to public lands, particularly the Bureau of Land Management.

When it came time for Q&A, I asked about exceptionality. Colorado has a political alignment, I mentioned, with Democrats in control of both the governor’s mansion and the Legislature and with no significant dissent. But how exceptional is Colorado when viewed across the broader national landscape?


Toor responded: “We’re an interior state that has a strong conventional energy infrastructure. Until very recently we had a coal-dominated electricity grid. We have a large oil and gas industry.

“We are perhaps no longer as purple a state as we once were, but we are still a purple state. We’re not a bright blue coastal state.

“And we’re showing that you can achieve deep decarbonization in a state like Colorado and that you can do it in a way where — not that there isn’t some conflict, but where it has been remarkably conflict-free and where very few of our rules have been litigated. We’ve been able to move forward on major policies with some arguments, but by and large something that approaches consensus.

“That is perhaps not unique, but we are hoping that it can become a model for many states across the country that don’t necessarily fit the mold of Massachusetts or California. I think the key to being able to do that (going forward) is maintaining that focus on making sure that our decarbonization policy works for regular everyday Coloradans and that it is making their lives better rather than driving up the cost of living. I think if we can do that, you’ve got a replicable model for dozens of states across the country.”


Clarke responded: I would say we are small, but we have big ideas. I mean all those regulations that I talked about, pretty much every one of those is first of its kind in the nation. So, to Will’s point, we’re normally showing through proof of concept that we can drive down our emissions. We’re really pioneering ways that other states can (follow).


Winter responded: “I think Colorado’s a leader, and we’re doing great. I would also remind us all that Colorado is maybe number five or six in the country in production of oil and gas.

(Editor’s note: Colorado was fifth in the nation in oil production in 2022, producing about 4% of the national production. It edged up in 2023 to fourth place. The Energy Information Administration reported that in 2022 it was 8th in extraction of natural gas. See more here.)

“We are still a leading state in terms of production of oil and gas. I don’t think that’s going to go away anytime soon. We’ve got to keep that in mind and figure out how to make progress on that front as well. The lifecycle emissions I think are really important for us to keep in mind and in making progress.”

Allen Best
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