Uncertainty plagues Senate bill to halt Clean Power Plan progress

Adversaries of the Clean Power Plan gained a small victory Thursday when a bill that would halt Colorado’s environmental progress passed committee.

The Clean Power Plan seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions nationwide, primarily by targeting coal-burning power plants.

The Supreme Court voted to “stay” — that is, halt the execution of — the plan in early February after two dozen states and several industry groups claimed it would cause them “irreparable harm.”

Republican-sponsored SB 157 would suspend all Colorado action toward implementing the CPP indefinitely, unless the Court lifts its stay and approves the plan. 

The Environmental Protection Agency has expressed confidence that the Clean Power Plan will pass. Colorado is one of 19 states, including a few others that are simultaneously suing the EPA, that are continuing to prepare for this possibility.

“If part of the Clean Power Plan is implemented, we don’t want to be left behind,” said Taryn Finnessey of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, who authored the state’s climate plan.

“It would absolutely put us behind the curve,” agreed Becky Long, a lobbyist for the environmental advocacy group Conservation Colorado. 

But the bill asserts Colorado simply doesn’t have the right to keep working toward the stayed plan’s goals.

In the absence of a federal mandate like the Clean Power Plan, the bill claims, “no legal state authority exists for any agency of the state” to keep working on a state plan related to power plant CO2 emissions.

In other words: Colorado can’t push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions unless the federal government says it has to.

Ted Zukoski, a staff attorney for the environmental law firm Earth Justice, disagrees.

“It’s pretty well-settled law that states can adopt measures to protect the environment and air quality that are even stricter than federal standards,” he said.

Zukoski cited Gov. John Hickenlooper’s recent rule to limit methane emissions, which is stricter than existing federal regulations, as an example of this authority.

The bill’s Republican sponsors, Sens. John Cooke and Jerry Sonnenberg, stand by the legislation’s claim that such authority doesn’t exist. But when pressed, they struggled to cite a legal precedent.

Sonnenberg spoke with authority about several aspects of the bill, but said, “I’m in over my head,” regarding the legal details.

“The onus is on [the bill’s opponents] to cite their authority,” said a spokesman for Cooke. He called the authority that critics have cited thus far “generalized” and “not very satisfying to our senators.”

Opponents fear that the bill’s broad language will deter new and existing action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Excel energy could bid to put new renewables online and say, ‘We want to lock these wind rates in. It’s the best economic option available,’” Long said. “But that could be read as implementing the Clean Power Plan.”

Jonathan Lockwood, director of the free market group Advancing Colorado, says the bill actually protects Coloradans from an overly limited energy policy.

“I believe this bill is representative of the will of the people,” said Lockwood, who opposes the Clean Power Plan. “The world is becoming a less safe place, and thus affordability and a robust energy portfolio is a must.”

In his testimony, Cooke said, “The bill today isn’t about the myth of man-made climate change.”

But critics say global warming is actually at the very heart of the legislation.

Reducing greenhouse emissions is essential if we are going to mitigate the effects of rising temperatures, said Long.

“Whether or not the packaging is in the CPP, we have to start reducing carbon,” she said. “This bill tells us to sit back, to sit on our hands, and do nothing.”

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