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Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser discusses state vs. federal roles in energy policies   

by Allen Best

Phil Weiser, Colorado’s attorney general, says he hears a chorus of support when he goes to rural areas and speaks about Colorado’s right to decide its future without interference from federal lawmakers and agencies.

That extends to environmental prerogatives, he goes on to say. The prime example is Colorado’s decision to join with California and other states to require lower emissions from automobiles sold in their states.

That authority stems from amendments to the Clean Air Act adopted by CongresPreview (opens in a new tab)s in the 1970s. The principle is that of collaborative (or cooperative) federalism, the idea that there should be flexibility in the relationship between federal and state governments in achieving goals.

That arrangement broke down during the Trump administration, which tried to block Colorado’s efforts to advance its clean transportation goals. Weiser’s office last year sued the federal government.

Weiser, a Democrat elected in November 2018, saw the Trump effort to quash the clean-air efforts as partisan. Until the 1990s, there was not partisanship to clean air, he said—a partisanship that now stalls efforts to adopt strategies to address climate change.

Evidence of that changing climate can be found incontrovertibly, he said, in Colorado’s winter snowpack, which has been diminishing notably during the 21st century.

The federal government’s case is a weak one, he said. “It’s a hard argument for the federal government to make because we were acting within our discretion to advance our priorities. That is how this was set up.”

The Trump administration also tried to roll back regulations governing emissions of methane.

Phil Weiser

Weiser spoke at a forum billed as a “conversation on energy and climate” that was organized by Getches-Wilkinson Center, part of the University of Colorado Law School.

In drawing up regulation, process matters greatly, he said. He cited the collaborative problem-solving process used by Colorado that yielded the state’s 2014 rules that seek to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas extraction. They became a national model.

“The methane rule came from a process that had all stakeholders at the table – oil and gas operators, environmental advocacy groups, and government regulators,” he said. This resulted in regulations that even oil and gas operators supported.

“Having the right process is, to me, critical,” he said.

Those seeking to change public policy also should be mindful of the transformative effects on communities. “We have to keep them in mind, and we haven’t always done a good job of that.”

In 2019, Colorado legislators created an Office of Just Transition. Outreach began in 2020 to Craig and Hayden, Colorado’s two iconic coal-dependent communities, to help begin mapping out strategies to smooth the transition from coal mines and plants.

Weiser said that it’s important to have empathy for people such as those in Craig and Hayden.

It’s one thing to understand that burning coal has been a significant cause of climate change. But it’s vital to respect those involved in that process, their humanity and lived experience. Demonizing is uncalled for. “Attitude matters, framing matters.”

If coal is now broadly recognized as dangerous, it’s also true that “those are our people,” he said.

In explaining his views, Weiser pointed to the globalization of the 1990s. It was widely credited as being economically efficient. Lost in the focus on global economic efficiency was the human face of those displaced in the shift.

“In formulating public policy, care must always be paid to those who will feel the impacts. We need to get better about being more empathetic about that.”

Weiser also reflected on the recent power outages in Texas in mid-February, with repercussions felt even in Colorado. That illustrated again Colorado’s interconnectedness with other states, other regions and – in the case of covid – with other continents.

“We in Colorado don’t exist on an island. we exist in a context.”

This was published in the March 31, 2021, issue of Big Pivots, an e-magazine. For a free subscription, go to

In the context of that energy fiasco in Texas, Weiser said his office will be investigating any possible wrongdoing that affected Colorado consumers. But he also said the problems of Texas also suggest need for caution as Colorado advances its decarbonization.

Ensuring resiliency matters, certainly so for water, but also food systems, and electricity, too, he said. If the problems in Texas were not exclusively those of any one energy source, they illustrated the need for backup baseload power. “That is something to be aware of and managed for,” he said.

“’It’s important to get this right. Any time of transition there’s a lot of room for error. Colorado has been a leader in energy policy, and I’d like to see us continue that role, but mindful of the risk we saw manifested in Texas.”

Allen Best
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