Climate of change
Trump’s EPA may put state at center of debate over energy, emissions
Under President Barack Obama, the direction set by the Environmental Protection Agency was clear, albeit disputed: States were expected to take aggressive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.
But under President-elect Donald Trump? The decision on how to combat climate change — or not — may increasingly be left to the states, putting Colorado and its energy sector at the center of the national debate over environmental regulations.
State lawmakers on both sides are already gearing up for a fight.
In the Senate, majority Republicans announced the creation of a Select Committee on Energy and the Environment. Across the aisle, Senate Democrats will for the first time have a deputy minority leader for conservation, clean energy and climate change.
Meanwhile, advocates on both sides are clamoring for action.
Energy industry leaders say they’re emboldened by Trump and his pick to lead the EPA, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, an ally of the fossil fuel industry. Environmentalists see the national political climate as a threat and are pushing for new policies at the state and local levels to mitigate whatever losses they suffer at the federal level.
Caught in the middle may be Colorado
Gov. John Hickenlooper and his draft order to cut power plant emissions 35 percent by 2030. The plan already was controversial, drawing opposition from the right, who urged Hickenlooper to wait for federal guidance, and from some on the left, who said it didn’t go far enough. Now that there’s no assurance of federal backup, the pressure from both sides may only be amplified.
The oil and gas industry already scored one recent victory in Colorado, when voters approved a measure limiting constitutional amendments. Groups seeking restrictions on drilling statewide have few options, for now, other than working through the split legislature.
Add it all up, and Colorado will be among the most interesting states to watch on climate and energy issues in the coming years.
Here’s what to look for:
A clean power plan?
Hickenlooper in an interview with The Denver Post this week reiterated his support for the emissions target but stopped short of committing to an executive order formalizing the policy.
“You know, when I first came out (with the plan) there was a lot of push back, in July and August when I first started talking about it, because a lot of people have a bad taste in their mouth for any kind of executive order,” Hickenlooper said. “I don’t care what it is. I want to lay a goal out: ‘This is how clean we can get our air.’ ”
The draft order, made public in August, would have directed state agencies to compel utilities to cut pollution, with an interim target of cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 25 percent before 2025. Hickenlooper said the order also would have pushed to keep utility bills from rising more than 2 percent or at the rate of inflation, whichever was less.
Now, Hickenlooper says an order or some other enforcement mechanism may not be necessary.
“I’m not sure we need it,” Hickenlooper said. “You need an enforcement mechanism if nobody wants to do it. But if you can find ways to get everyone on the same page, ultimately, what utility doesn’t want to provide cleaner electricity at the same cost?”
Industry groups, meanwhile, have issued blanket warnings opposing anything that mimics what Obama was attempting to do at the federal level with the Clean Power Plan, which would have committed Colorado to a roughly 32 percent cut below 2005 emissions levels by 2030. The plan stalled in the face of legal action, and Trump has pledged to repeal it.
“It doesn’t make sense for states to be rushing into their own version of that while things are in flux at the federal level,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, an oil and natural gas trade association. She warned that a state-level clean power plan would put Colorado at an economic disadvantage vs. other states.
Hillary Larson, a spokeswoman for the Sierra Club Rocky Mountain Chapter, said the environmental group isn’t actively campaigning for state action on climate issues. But, depending on where Hickenlooper goes from here, she said the group may take a more active role.
Lawmakers mull energy mix
In the state legislature, Republicans and Democrats agree that Colorado needs to act now to prepare for its future energy needs.
But they advocate very different routes.
State Sen. Matt Jones, the deputy minority leader, said he wants Colorado to continue moving toward clean energy sources, such as wind and solar.
“They are better for the consumer as far as cost, plus they don’t pollute, so we don’t have those other costs that we live with,” said Jones, D-Louisville.
State Sen. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, favors an “all of the above” approach that includes renewables such as wind and solar, but also coal, oil, natural gas — even nuclear. And, he dismisses calls to abandon coal and other fossil fuels as “extremism.”
“I think we have to look at everything,” said Scott, who chairs the new select committee. “We’re growing like crazy in Colorado. Is it going to make sense in the future for us to only lean on coal and natural gas for our power generation?”
Environmental groups feel like they’ll ultimately win the argument, whether at the statehouse or at the national level, for a simple reason: economics.
“The price for wind and solar is just dropping like a rock,” said Pete Maysmith, president of Conservation Colorado. “I mean, wind is cost-competitive and in many cases the cheapest resource. Period. End of discussion.”
Colorado’s coal production has fallen to about 12 million tons this year from 36.1 million tons in 2007, according to statistics from the Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining & Safety. But coal still accounted for just under 60 percent of the electric power generated in the state last year, despite stiff competition from wind and natural gas.
With each side controlling one chamber, the smart bet is on the status quo: a mix of coal and natural gas, with an ongoing shift toward renewable energies, as market conditions allow. State lawmakers have already established a target of having utilities generate 30 percent of energy using renewable sources by 2020.
“This isn’t just about what the president does,” Maysmith said. “It’s about what the investors and the entrepreneurs and the utilities and the regulators do.”
Optimism, on both sides
Optimism is one thing both sides have in common, strange as it may sound.
From the fossil fuel industry: “I can’t tell you the level of optimism. If Trump does nothing but stop being hostile,” it’ll be an improvement, said Sgamma with the Western Energy Alliance. “We’ve been inundated with regulations in a hostile administration.”
And from the environmentalists: “We really think it’s a great opportunity for the state to take the lead as far as environmental protections are concerned,” said Larson, the Sierra Club spokeswoman. “As far as clean energy is concerned, we don’t think that Trump’s going to be able to stop the momentum that we’re seeing around solar and wind.”
For the Sierra Club, the immediate push is on the local level. The city of Boulder this week adopted citywide climate goals that call for an 80 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, the Boulder Daily Camera reported. And Denver Mayor Michael Hancock has outlined similar goals.
Sgamma, meanwhile, sees opportunities for her industry to expand, even at today’s low commodity prices.
“If we can roll back some of this federal regulation, then the cost of drilling any individual well goes down, and then the price at which we need to break even on that, well, likewise goes down,” she said.
Something else both sides agree on?
“We have a lot of work to do,” Jones said.
Wind turbines operate at the National Wind Technology Center near Boulder.
The Jefferson County Community Solar Garden is a 13-acre, 1.5-megawatt facility.
The West Elk Mine near Somerset is the state’s largest coal mine.
An oil rig in Weld County is pictured in January.