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Colorado is falling behind on its mandate to cut greenhouse gases

New state assessment shows big gaps in goals for transportation emissions
Interstate 70 traffic seen on April 21, 2022, near Denver. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

Colorado has fallen alarmingly behind statutory goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions for 2025 and 2030, state officials show in a new progress assessment, prompting clean air advocates to renew calls for more aggressive action on consumer and business driving habits and a shift to transit spending.

The projected gap is widest in transportation, where state estimates put 2025 carbon dioxide emissions essentially unchanged from current levels if stronger new policies are not added. State air pollution control officials have estimated Colorado needs to cut 10 million tons of annual carbon emissions from transportation to meet legislated goals of 26% cuts from 2005 levels by 2025.

“We have a pretty big gap,” Air Quality Control Commission member Elise Jones said in response to the state progress report to the commission. “It seems we need to double down on transportation.”

“Everything needs to be on the table,” responded Air Pollution Control Division Deputy Director Clay Clarke, who presented the progress report to the commission.

While Colorado is lauded nationally for scheduling aggressive closures of coal-fired plants in the largest emissions sector, power generation, those closures may need to be sped up even further for the state to meet the greenhouse gas goals, critics said. An analysis of the new progress report by Western Resource Advocates shows a gap of 1.3 million annual tons of carbon emissions in projections for 2025.

“Basically, the rules that have already taken effect are not doing what they said they would do,” said Heidi Leathwood, climate policy analyst for the nonprofit advocacy group 350 Colorado. “That shows the importance of making all rules stringent enough to allow for a generous margin of error. The world cannot afford to fail to meet reduction targets.”

Given the poor results so far, Leathwood said, Colorado should not be endorsing electric companies building new natural gas-fired power plants to fill in gaps as they close coal-fired plants. Nor should they permit more oil and gas drilling, or rely solely on the slow process of switching to electric vehicles to clean up the transportation sector.

“The state should put everything it has behind getting people off roads and making sure we all have safe and convenient transit, bike and pedestrian options,” Leathwood said.

The glaring results in the transportation sector, which is now nearly equal to power generation in its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, highlight the frustrations of environment advocates who say the state has canceled or delayed rulemaking that would have had an impact.

State officials in 2021 withdrew a proposal to limit commuting and work trips at large employers, after stiff opposition from business groups, even though the initial plans had no enforcement mechanism. State air pollution control officials also put off until sometime in 2023 adopting so-called Advanced Clean Truck rules similar to those in California, which will steer large fleet owners toward replacing diesel and other fossil fuel vehicles with cleaner electric or other power sources.

The state’s progress report showed a key measure of transportation’s contribution to climate-warming greenhouse gases, vehicle miles traveled or VMT, are climbing again after seeing a significant drop at the beginning of pandemic-related shutdowns. Many work commuters are now working from home, but a return to schools, personal errands or other trips are pushing up VMT again in a way that negates many of the gains from early adoption of cleaner electric power vehicles.

Environmental groups and some AQCC commissioners urged state staff members to push for earlier adoption of another set of clean vehicle rules, Advanced Clean Cars II, which is not currently on the schedule for commission consideration in 2022 or 2023.

Colorado currently operates under a first-phase Clean Car set of rules adopted from California, which requires automakers to sell an increasing percentage of electric vehicles in their fleets or buy credits from manufacturers like Tesla who produce more. The second phase of the Clean Car rules, already advancing in California, would ban sales of fossil fuel cars altogether by 2035 and speed up the percentages of electric vehicles sold before then.

All of the additional moves, environmental groups point out, would also help Colorado more quickly meet Environmental Protection Agency limits on ozone, which is produced by a combination of vehicle emissions, power plant and industrial smokestacks, wildfire smoke and the sun. The northern Front Range of Colorado was on Friday officially placed in the “severe” nonattainment category for ozone, triggering new permitting requirements for a wider array of air polluters and ordering Front Range stations to sell cleaner reformulated gas by 2024.

Despite acknowledging the ongoing ozone violations, Gov. Jared Polis last week fired off a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency opposing the mandatory switch to reformulated gas and threatening to sue over it, saying Colorado consumers should not have to pay the extra pennies per gallon for cleaner gas.

Jones reminded the air quality commission that they had vowed in 2020 that if it became clear Colorado was falling behind on the greenhouse gas goals, the commission would take stronger action to limit emissions.

“We passed a resolution to say we’d fill gaps when we found them. We just found them,” Jones said.

Commissioner Patrick Cummins said the long-standing state target of registering nearly 1 million electric vehicles by 2030, while the progress report shows 47,000 on the road by the end of 2021.

“That’s one thing about the clock, it keeps ticking,” Cummins said. “That doesn’t seem so ‘on track’ to me.”

WildEarth Guardians is among the groups pushing the commission and other regulators to pass additional rules in transportation and other sectors, for both ozone and greenhouse gas control.

“Something has to close the emissions gap – it can’t just be based on hopes and aspirations, which is essentially what the division is currently mostly relying on,” said Jeremy Nichols, director of the climate and energy program for the group. “At the end of the day, the commission’s the one charged with doing what’s needed.”

There was some good news for Colorado in the past week, in the “compared to what” category. The nonprofit clean energy analysis group RMI said additional climate-oriented legislation passed in the 2022 session puts Colorado on the path to achieve 80% progress on its climate goals. An agreement to close Xcel’s Comanche 3 coal plant in Pueblo by the end of 2030 pushed the electricity sector to achieving 105% of its needed cuts, RMI said. Colorado is also near the top of the list of states adopting electric vehicles most quickly.

“Colorado’s leadership not only provides a model for other states striving to set and meet ambitious climate goals, but it also serves as a template for federal policy and an indicator of how far states can push the envelope in displaying climate leadership,” RMI analysts said.

Still, RMI noted the gap in transportation emissions cuts, and agreed with those demanding new policies and regulations to speed up progress there.

“We need to not only focus on moving to clean fuels, moving to electric vehicles, but also on reducing how much we drive,” said Wendy Jaglom-Kurtz, a manager in RMI’s U.S. Program. “There are investments to be made in transit, providing more options for Coloradans to move around the state.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.