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Bill would give air commission more authority, structure and deadlines in achieving GHG reductions

by Allen Best

Meetings of the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission had a certain predictability in much of 2020, particularly the latter half. Almost every month commissioners heard complaints from environmental groups and sometimes legislators that the commission was moving too slowly in decarbonization work.

The AQCC was given primary responsibility in 2019 by state legislators to adopt the rules necessary to achieve the economy wide carbon reductions of 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050 identified in SB 236.

The AQCC indeed accomplished a lot in 2020 with rules intended to suppress emissions from the oil and gas sector and pick up the pace on adoption of electric vehicles, to cite just two examples.

But there was a growing sense in the comments of environmental organizations that the pace was too slow.

During the summer, State Sen. Faith Winter, a Democrat from Adams County, and then-House Speaker KC Becker, a Democrat from Boulder, appeared before the AQCC to call for accelerated action.

The response from the Air Quality Control Commission, the agency that works with the appointed members of the AQCC, was that the resources weren’t there to do all the rulemakings everybody wanted.

Now comes a bill, SB 21-200, sponsored by Winter with three other prime sponsors that seeks to both push and pull the AQCC forward.

The heart of the bill would require the AQCC to create sector-specific emissions goals by March 2022. The Polis administration, through its decarbonization roadmap that was released in January, has identified strategies by sectors. This would harden the efforts for transportation, oil and gas, and buildings.

For example, the bill would set a 2030 target of 8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent from the oil and gas sector. This compares with 13 MMT CO2 for 2025. The baseline of 20.17 MMT C02 was set in 2005.

The transportation sector would be ratcheted down to 23 MMT in 2025 and 18 MMT in 2030 compared to the 30.71 MMT baseline. The reductions in the residential, commercial, and industrial energy use would be smaller but still significant.

This is from the March 31, 2021, issue of Big Pivots, an e-magazine tracking the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Subscribe at bigpivots.com

The targets identified in the bill come from the Polis administration’s roadmap. The bill would, however, put those sector-specific targets into law.

The AQCC would have some flexibility to juggle the goals as it goes about setting the rules resulting in rapidly declining emissions.

The bill, said Stacy Tellinghuisen, senior climate policy analyst at Western Resource Advocates, seeks to ensure the decarbonization roadmap “doesn’t end up collecting dust on the shelf and (the goals) actually becoming a reality. We’re trying to make sure we have the rules and policies that drive the achievement of those reductions.”

The proposal would also make even more clear than the 2019 legislation that AQCC is the agency within the state government that needs to be laser-focused on creating the rules that will get the state to its targets.

Adriana Gonzalez, director of Colorado climate and clean energy policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, had a similar comment.

“While Gov. Polis and his team released the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap in January, many clean energy and climate justice advocates will feel anxious about the near-term plan to ensure appropriate action and accountability. That’s where SB 21-200 comes in. It puts in place more structure, authority, and deadlines while leaving plenty of room for each industry to innovate and create the solutions that work best for them.”

In an interview, Gonzalez said that she sees the bill as attempting to make the AQCC the conductor that is currently lacking in Colorado’s decarbonization effort. A conductor of a symphony sets the timing and brings in all the sections when appropriate.

“There needs to be that conductor that is ensuring everybody’s in line,” she says.

As a practical matter, the Polis administration had assembled a working group of agencies. The Public Utilities Commission—as identified in 2019 laws – has to do some of the work, the transportation department has a role, but other agencies as well.

But the AQCC is the only agency in state government to have jurisdiction over all greenhouse gas emissions.

Can the AQCC get all this driving done by 2030 with a half tank? This bill attempts to ensure that it does by removing what environmental advocates describe as a loophole from the annual pollution on fees assessed the state’s 10 most polluting industrial sources. Those sources include power plants, both coal and natural gas, cement kilns and oil and gas processing facilities. Current payments top out at $130,000 a year. Removing the cap will produce revenues of $10 million to $15 million per year.

Another key provision would expand the requirements of electrical utilities. The 2019 law required only Xcel Energy to reduce emissions 80% by 2030 but spoke to “clean energy plans” of other utilities. Those plans have been voluntarily agreed to by Tri-State Generation & Transmission, Platte River Power Authority, and other utilities.

The bill would also allow some of the new revenue to be used to enable outreach to and engagement of disproportionately impacted communities on matters concerning air quality and associated health impacts.

One very big question in this writer’s mind is what will be the impact of the allegation by 3 whistleblowers this week that Garry Kaufman, director of the Air Pollution Control Division, ordered suspension of modeling to estimate emissions of surges of harmful sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and particulates.

See Denver Post story here.

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