By Kayla Zacharias
The Colorado legislature would typically be several weeks into the 2021 session by now (starting in the second week of January), but the high number of coronavirus cases in the state led to a change in plans. The General Assembly met from Jan. 13 to Jan. 15 to swear in new members and pass high-priority bills before gavelling out again until Feb. 16. Legislators hope that waiting another month to reconvene will push them out far enough from the anticipated spike in COVID cases associated with the holiday season to make meeting in person comparatively safe.
Upon the return of the Colorado state legislature in February, popular bills that were sidelined due to the pandemic in 2020 are likely to be reconsidered. Although legislation unrelated to pandemic recovery is expected to take a backseat, we are still likely to see several climate bills on the agenda in 2021.
According to Colorado’s Greenhouse Pollution Reduction Roadmap, the state’s 2025 and 2030 greenhouse reduction goals are feasible, but not without new actions and laws. The roadmap, which was officially released by Governor Polis’s office Jan. 14, lays out a schedule for new legislation and regulations to help Colorado meet its emissions reduction goals. Converting the energy grid to renewables is a central theme throughout the roadmap, but nearly every sector of the economy will be touched by energy considerations.
New rules will be created and implemented by various Colorado commissions and state agencies in the executive branch, but legislation will be critical as well. Much of this new legislation will likely manifest in bills focused on transportation, buildings and gas utilities.
The Colorado Energy Office has done significant work to support the transition to electric vehicles (EVs) in recent years, but there’s still a long way to go. Transportation is not only the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in Colorado, but a significant cause of air quality issues. It is essential that the state creates standards to spur investment and remove barriers to EV ownership, according to the roadmap. However, incentives for EV adoption are still encased in the logics of personal automobile travel, and considerations of walkable cities and public transportation infrastructure are vital to Colorado’s success in reducing carbon emissions throughout the state.
As for buildings and gas utilities, lawmakers will need to:
- Set carbon reduction targets for gas utilities
- Establish biogas requirements for gas utilities
- Require existing large commercial buildings to track energy use and make progress towards new performance standards
- Mandate regulated electric utilities to create programs that support beneficial electrification
- Expand energy efficiency investments from gas utilities
After the third driest year in recorded Colorado history dwindled river flows and allowed for the state’s worst wildfire season ever, climate change is top of mind for many legislators. Going forward into the 2021 legislative session, other topics likely to be addressed include methane leaks, improving the electric transmission grid, and increasing the use of energy storage equipment in Colorado.
Legislators may revisit several bills concerning wildfire prevention and control which were tabled indefinitely during the 2020 legislative session. Wildfires are not only a danger to human life and property, but a contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and harmful air quality. Governor Polis also noted wildfires as a serious issue for the state, earmarking $78 million for wildfire relief, mitigation and prevention in the 2021-2022 budget.
On methane, the state’s Air Quality Control Commission is likely to create new rules for the oil and gas industry. Colorado needs to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by more than half by 2030, according to the roadmap. The state will likely also need new rules or legislation to help reduce methane emissions from landfills, sewage plants and other methane sources.
The roadmap is ambitious – it’s the most expansive planning document Colorado has ever produced on climate change. However, some are questioning whether the current plan does enough to address environmental racism.
After a summer filled with Black Lives Matter protests, calls for social justice have deservedly gained recognition in efforts to address human-environment challenges. Colorado’s Climate Action Plan to Reduce Pollution (HB 19-1261) called for the development of a climate equity framework, and the roadmap plans for that document to be finished by the end of spring 2021.
In August 2020, more than 100 environmental advocates and several Colorado lawmakers co-signed a letter to Governor Polis expressing their concern about the roadmap. In order for the state’s climate policies to protect those most at risk, marginalized and low-income communities need to be included in the process of writing those policies as we move forward in 2021, according to the letter. How seriously Colorado’s lawmakers consider racial equity in their work is likely to be closely watched during this 2021 legislative session, and how much climate policy can be enacted while Coloradans are struggling at the hands of the pandemic remains to be seen.
Follow along with our ongoing ‘Science Notes’ for further updates.