Capitol Review: Democrats attacked greenhouse gas with a dozen bills

Ambitious climate-change agenda includes emissions reductions targets and oil and gas regulations

Photo of smoggy downtown Denver skyline via the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Air Pollution Control Division, Technical Services Program, Wednesday, March 6, 2019.
Photo of smoggy downtown Denver skyline via the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Air Pollution Control Division, Technical Services Program, Wednesday, March 6, 2019. The EPA downgraded the region to a "serious" violator of the Clean Air Act on Dec. 16, 2019.

Editor’s note: The Indy is publishing a series of short stories reviewing the 2019 legislative session in Colorado. Here, we focus on climate change. We also wrote about immigration, opioids, and criminal justice. Look for our story on voting/elections. 

Colorado is about to take on an ambitious plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions and possibly set a national example for how to battle climate change.

The Democratic-controlled state legislature recently passed more than a dozen climate-action measures, including landmark regulations on oil and gas drilling, targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, de facto subsidies for electric vehicles and new energy efficiency requirements for homes and appliances.

The robust climate agenda comes after Democrats claimed the state House, Senate and governor’s office last November.

Democrats were motivated by the Front Range’s persistently unhealthy air, a deadly 2017 pipeline explosion in Firestone, and a report from the United Nations scientific panel on climate change predicting a global crisis by mid-century unless carbon emissions are drastically cut.

Even so, many of the new policies faced opposition from the oil and gas industry and Republicans, who cited the potential economic impact on the state’s booming fossil fuels economy.

Here is a summary of those key bills:

SB19-181 —  In the past, efforts by local governments to enact regulations on oil and gas drilling were stunted by legal challenges. The state court consistently ruled local regulations must not conflict with the state’s mission to promote oil and gas development. That has now changed. With the passage of game-changing oil and gas regulations, local governments along the Front Range are already writing new regulations. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is drafting new rules to prioritize public health, safety, and the environment when issuing drilling permits.

HB19-1261 — Colorado’s new greenhouse gas emissions reductions targets call for cutting planet-warming gases 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050, both compared to 2005 levels. That’s the equivalent of moving to an entirely renewable electric grid and plugging all the state’s oil and gas wells over the next decade. The plan is bold, but there is nothing in the law to ensure the state meets the targets. Gov. Jared Polis successfully fought against including any enforcement mechanism in the bill. A separate bill, SB19-096, will require the state to collect and report emissions data every two years, instead of the current five-year cycle.  

SB19-236 — The state’s largest electric utility, Xcel, will have to power its electric grid entirely with renewables by 2050, a task yet to be achieved on a large scale. In addition to meeting those goals, Xcel will have to file a “workforce transition plan” with the Public Utilities Commission, a governor-appointed board that regulates utilities, to help workers transition into a new line of work, referred to as a “just transition” provision. A separate bill, HB19-1214, creates a just transition office to help coal workers find new jobs. About half the state’s electricity comes from burning coal.

HB19-1003 — Homeowners who want to own their own solar power will have an easier time finding panels. Lawmakers this session expanded the legal size of “community solar” arrays. These projects allow homeowners to purchase rights to solar electricity and sell what they don’t use back to the grid. How much they get paid for that excess electricity is a major policy question that lawmakers punted to the Public Utilities Commission.

HB19-1231 — Stores will soon have to carry appliances and plumbing fixtures that meet new energy- and water-efficiency standards. Retailers could be punished for failing to comply.

HB19-1260 — New homes built in Colorado will also have to be more energy efficient building codes.

Lawmakers also made it easier to buy and own an electric vehicle.

HB19-1159 — Tax credits for buying a low-emission vehicle were extended another four years.

SB19-077 — Electric utilities investing in charging stations will be able to recoup costs from customers, including those who don’t own an electric car.

HB19-1298 — People who park petroleum-power vehicles in front of charging stations could soon be ticketed.

Many of these bills await the governor’s signature. He is expected to sign them.

Some of these issues may be revisited in future years, as some lawmakers want to see tougher emissions reductions targets. And several new policies call on agencies like the Public Utilities Commission and the Air Quality Control Commission to adopt major, economy-wide policy changes without additional resources to make it happen.