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State adopts rules for emissions reporting. But is Colorado moving too slowly? Time to talk about carbon pricing?  

by Allen Best

Colorado now has rules guiding collection of greenhouse gas emissions. It’s viewed as an elemental step for designing strategies for sharply ratcheting down greenhouse gas emissions during the next decade and beyond.

But whether Colorado is moving fast enough to honor the intent of legislative mandates from 2019 and the underlying climate change reality that spurred those laws is a question that will be explored more in depth when members of the Air Quality Control Commission gather virtually twice during June.

The commission on May 22 unanimously adopted Regulation 22, using language recommended by staff members at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment after a series of last-minute compromises over fine-tuning. The regulations have two parts: the data gathering and also a phasing out of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, greenhouse gases that have 1,000 to 3,000 the warming capacity of carbon dioxide.

The phase out of HFCs is being done on the same page offered by the U.S. Climate Alliance. California, Washington, Vermont, and New Jersey are doing so beginning in 2020-21, while a handful of other coastal states and now Colorado will follow in 2021-22. The phaseout includes aerosols and foams, some of which are used in building materials, beginning in January, and refrigerants over a two-year time frame beginning in January, and air conditioners/chillers beginning January 1, 2024.

The commission approved an exemption for a manufacturer of chillers in Pueblo that employs 500 people.

The emissions reporting rules spurred more debate. There was some protest from the oil and gas sector, but on the edges. There were also protests of rural communities such as Garfield County closely aligned philosophically—and the representatives said economically, too—with oil and gas production.

Tankers, presumably carrying oil, roll through downtown Denver. Photo/Allen Best

But the legislative mandates underlying these new regulations made the protests mostly empty.

The more interesting debate was about whether the proposed reporting requirements went wide enough and deep enough.

There was no protest about the regulations governing collection of the electric sector data. Collection is relatively easily accomplished.

Transportation is more difficult. Colorado has one refinery, Suncor, located along the South Platte River north of downtown Denver. It accounts for roughly 40% of gasoline sold in Colorado. But what about the 60% of Colorado’s liquid fossil fuels that arrive by truck, train tankers, or pipeline? The state can use various methods to get a bead on the emissions component using other databases, but the state doesn’t want to immediately reach out to those many sources to begin direct reporting.

This is from  Big Pivots No. 11 (5.25.2020). To be on the distribution list, send you e-mail address to [email protected]

Two powerhouses, the Environmental Defense Fund and Western Resource Advocates, said the state was missing a big opportunity.

One reason for getting that information directly, said Pam Kiely, senior director of regulatory strategy for the EDF, is to begin building relationships, something that staff members of the state health department’s climate division conceded they do not have.

Stacy Tellinghuisen, of Western Resource Advocates, said it was important to get the reporting right from the start given the daunting work that lies ahead. If the commission can later revise the rules, there’s no time to wait, she emphasized.

Instructively, though, three of the six commissioners who voted for the state agency’s preferred compromise are from either the Boulder or Aspen areas. All lauded the state staff agency effort of the last few months. One of them, Auden Schendler, described it as “Ph.D-level plus.”

But several of the commissioners—those from the Aspen and Boulder areas—also fretted that for all the diligence, it’s just not fast enough.

Elise Jones

“We are not reinventing the wheel. We need to make the wheel go faster,” said Elise Jones, a Boulder County commissioner who is on the commission. She pointed to the work done by California and Oregon by E3, the consulting firm hired by Colorado to assist in roadmap planning.

Both Jones and Jana Milford, a professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder who is on the commission, pointed to the urgency expressed by House Speaker KC Becker at the outset of the hearing. She had played a crucial role in adoption of the legislation that sets the targets for emission reductions and the baseline measuring. She emphasized the need  for “proposed draft rules by July 1, 2020, to cost-effectively allow the state to meet its greenhouse gas reductions goals,” as the bill summary of SB19-096 puts it.

Garry Kaufman, director of the Air Pollution Control Division within the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, disagreed. He said he believed it was drafted with the intent of avoiding hard deadlines. “I don’t agree that the statute is clear,” he said.

The disagreement was not personal, he said. “We all care about these things. It’s just a how do we get from where we are to where we need to be.”

Milford agreed with Jones about the need to pick up the pace. She pointed to many menu options. “California is a good example of a state that has a lot of standards-based performance regulation but also a regulatory backstop that is enforceable,” she said. “I think it’s important to discuss this option.”

Several of the commissioners talked about the need to begin discussion of carbon pricing, whether directly with a tax such as has existed in British Columbia since 2008 or cap-and -trade regulations such as California has and were used by states in New England to lower emissions from the electric sector.

Schendler talked about using the opportunities presented by the covid-19 pandemic to accelerate action on climate change. He pointed to the March 23 issue of the Economist magazine. “Following the pandemic is like watching the climate crisis with your finger jammed on the fast-forward button,” the magazine said.

“As we explain this week, the pandemic both reveals the size of the challenge ahead and also creates a unique chance to enact government policies that steer the economy away from carbon at a lower financial, social and political cost than might otherwise have been the case. Rock-bottom energy prices make it easier to cut subsidies for fossil fuels and to introduce a tax on carbon.”

Schendler also pointed to testimony at the outset of this and other hearings. Commenters don’t get into details of public policy, he said, but they make clear that they want action on climate change.

Allen Best
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