Colorado more than ready for new national air quality standards

DENVER- Following a directive from President Obama, the Environmental Protection Agency Monday proposed new air quality regulations that would require coal-fired power plants to reduce their emissions by 30 percent between 2005 and 2030.

Despite ranking tenth in the nation for most CO2 produced per megawatt-hour in 2012, Colorado is well positioned to meet the EPA’s new regulations, according to conservationists.

“It is no accident that Colorado is well positioned to meet the new proposed carbon pollution standards. Colorado voters and our elected officials have supported important clean renewable energy and energy efficiency measures over the last decade to help Colorado lead the way,” said Carrie Curtiss, deputy director of Conservation Colorado, in a release.

Analysts point toward Colorado’s recent efforts to increase renewable energy production by requiring utilities to use increasing percentages of clean energy sources. Colorado power generators must include 30 percent renewable power in their output by 2020. Rural electric co-ops will use renewable energy for 20 percent of output. Analysts also note the success of the state’s 2010 Clean Air Clean Jobs Act, a plan that has contributed to a large, long-term switch from coal to natural gas-burning power plants.

John Nielsen, energy program director at Western Resource Advocates, said the organization predicts that Colorado’s current law and policies are enough to reduce carbon emissions from existing power plants by 20 percent to 25 percent in 2020, putting Colorado firmly on track to meet the slightly higher 2030 goal.

The EPA’s proposed rules are now subject to public vetting. One of many hearings scheduled across the country will take place in Denver on July 29. After that, states have until June of 2016 to submit a plan for compliance. State’s enjoy primary authority in deciding how to reduce carbon emissions. The EPA has already proposed flexible measures that would allow states to retro-fit and retain some older plants.

Because each state more or less gets to decide for themselves how they’ll meet the standard, it’s difficult to say with certainty what the economic impact of this nationwide policy will be. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a longtime opponent of movement toward clean energy, has already released a report that says the mountain region (Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Nevada and Idaho) could lose more than 25,000 jobs and $5 billion annually until 2030 as a result of the EPA’s new rules.

Those are overblown numbers, says Nielsen, who points out that Colorado has not seen major rate increases after a decade spent ratcheting up renewable energy standards. He added that utility-scale wind and solar can often be cheaper energy producers than their carbon-based colleagues.

Others say that even if there are economic costs to the plan, the broader tourism, health and safety benefits across Colorado are too valuable to be ignored.

Eagle County Commissioner Jill Ryan noted that, with winters growing shorter at a rate of 5 days per decade, Colorado’s resort communities estimate that they’ve already lost more than $1 billion in the winter sports industry since 1999.

Former hotshot firefighter John Lauer said that coming fire seasons, predicted to average six months with fires twice as large as a decade ago, will become catastrophic if the underlying pollution driving up temperatures and sapping water out of the West isn’t addressed.

In Denver, emergency rooms are seeing as many as 8,000 people a year admitted for serious asthma attacks, and mostly young people.

“Limiting carbon pollution, while simultaneously reducing other important air pollutants from power plants is a critical step to protect public health in Colorado,” said Gregg Thomas, manager of Air, Water and Climate at the Denver Department of Environmental Health.

In Colorado Springs, home to three military bases, the Department of Defense has already made the kinds of investments in renewable energy you’d expect to see from a left-leaning university.

Fort Carson has committed to a net-zero plan that includes water conservation. The Air Force Academy has said they’ll work to produce 100 percent of their energy on their own land using renewable resources.

“Climate change is a national security issue,” said Dennis Shorts, a former U.S. Army Officer and member of Operation Free, a coalition of veterans and national security experts that advocate energy independence.

“Thankfully, these carbon pollution safeguards will incentivize Colorado to continue to move forward toward reducing our carbon pollution, dependence on foreign energy, and flow of our resources and money to unstable regions in the world,” said Shorts.

[ Photo of America the Beautiful Park, which borders Colorado Springs’ coal-burning power plant, by Jessica Lamirand. ]