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Capitol Letters: Aspirations vs execution on climate change

Governor Polis created a lot of buzz among climate activists by threatening to veto a bill that’s not even out of committee
Capitol Letters Photo
Photo by Marcia Martin

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Governor Polis created a lot of buzz among climate activists last week by threatening to veto a bill that’s not even out of committee yet.

SB21-200’s Admirable Aspirations

Senate Bill 21-200, Reduce Greenhouse Gases Increase Environmental Justice, is a bill that looks good on its surface. As a committed environmentalist, I want to support it. As a [retired] professional in the field of renewable energy technology and as a fractional owner in the Platte River Power Authority — as every Longmont resident is — I know that it needs to be fixed before I can do so.

Since Colorado’s two landmark environment bills, HB19-1261, Climate Action Plan, and SB19-181, Protect Public Welfare Oil and Gas Operations, passed in 2019, environmental watchdogs like me have vibrated with frustration. These new laws moved state policy in favor of public health over the extraction industry and set statewide goals for greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction. These are critical positive actions. But they required two state regulatory agencies, the Air Quality Control Commission, or AQCC and the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission, or COGCC, to make extensive new rules about how to implement and enforce their newly defined missions. This process has been painfully slow. 

It’s no wonder that legislators like Faith Winter and Dominique Jackson, who were sponsors of HB19-1261, opted with SB21-200 to leave less to regulatory chance.

SB21-200 has admirable and necessary aspirations. Here are some of the great things it is attempting to accomplish:

 
  • Direct the AQCC to consider the Social Cost of Carbon
  • Require greenhouse gas, or GHG, emitters to reduce their emissions steadily, rather than waiting until the last minute and then making dramatic reductions just before the deadline
  • Setting more aggressive goals for GHG reduction than HB12-1261
  • Promotes racial and social equity for a just energy transition.

All this is hard to argue with and popular support is loud and strong.

What’s wrong with SB21-200, and what to fix

Governor Polis called SB21-200 “dictatorial” and emphasized his preferred incentives-based policies instead. Certainly, the governor has been, in my opinion, too pro-business and squishy on public health and the environment in the past. He’s got a fine line to walk politically, too, and that may have something to do with his early opposition to this bill. Or, this may just be his diplomatic way of telling the bill’s sponsors that they have not done their homework.

Longmont has a pretty unique arrangement when it comes to getting electricity. We, the people, own not only the municipal power company, but the generation and transmission utility, Platte River Power Authority, or PRPA. 

PRPA is owned in partnership with Loveland, Fort Collins and Estes Park. And the four cities, in 2018, — as you’ve read here many times before — enforced a mandate of 100% renewable-generated electricity by 2030. They’re making reluctant progress, and just last week actually came clean that some of their former policy goals were inadequate and that the mandate is more reachable than they’ve been admitting.

SB21-200 would only require PRPA to be at 80% renewables by 2030 — not the 100% its ownership mandates. Furthermore, the bill is written in such a way that PRPA could incur penalties for not moving fast enough — even though it’s already ahead of the game. 

Regular readers know that I am not a fan of PRPA’s leadership and that I have often called them out on policy errors and misleading communications. But I introduced the resolution for the 100% renewable mandate in the Longmont City Council. I don’t want to see them punished for complying and I don’t want to give them an excuse for doing less than we told them, either. More to the point, I don’t want our electric bills to go up because of poorly crafted legislation.

The bill gives the Public Utilities Commission authorities that it has not had, to date, over PRPA and other small utilities. This weakens municipalities and the PRPA board of directors.  It also creates a risk that heavy-handed policies intended for behemoths like XCEL and Black Hills will be enacted with no understanding of the special circumstances of small utilities. The PRPA collective of Longmont, Fort Collins, Loveland, and Estes Park is unique in the state — maybe in the nation. It’s wrong to take authority away from the local board of directors and hand it to an impersonal agency like the PUC.

Indeed, the central flaw with SB21-200 is that it tries to do the job of the rulemaking and enforcing bodies. This is understandable, but wrong-headed. Tempting as it is, there will be unintended consequences because all the exceptional circumstances of our diverse utilities cannot be anticipated in law. And that’s what Governor Polis is saying with his veto threat.

Can this legislation be saved?

I think so — with a very sharp scalpel. The Energy Committee needs to slash away all the overly-prescriptive language that tries to micromanage the agencies and retain the more stringent goals, tighter deadlines and an emphasis on social equity. Perhaps, rather than telling the agencies how to reach the new goals, it should establish consequences if they fail. SB19-1261’s shortcoming was that the rulemaking agencies had no incentive not to dawdle.

SB21-200 already has been amended six times in committee and the job’s not done. Two very good amendments explicitly limited the degree to which a utility could be penalized for carbon emissions and changed a requirement for “linear” reductions in GHG emissions to a less prescriptive “steady” reductions. That eliminated the possibility that PRPA could be punished for being a leader.

One amendment I’d like to see is a change in the way the penalty for carbon emissions is implemented — if it’s not eliminated altogether. Carbon penalties drive consumer rates up. The penalty lands in the wrong place if the revenue from the fees goes anywhere but directly back to the rate paying consumers to offset their costs. Otherwise the “invisible hand of the market” is pushing on the wrong actors. Social equity is undermined.

It’s hard to describe the work needed on SB21-200 without things getting very wonky. Instead, let’s just let the governor’s threat do its work. Instead of cheering uncritically for this bill, allowing it to be pushed through warts and all, let’s demand that it be fixed. A bill with teeth — as this one tries to be  — has to be perfect, lest it bite the wrong hand. Longmont is a bellwether on the energy transition now. Don’t let careless but toothy legislation drive us back to the middle of the flock.

Get involved

The House, Senate and committees are available by streaming video online here: http://leg.colorado.gov/watch-listen. Here’s how to sign up for remote testimony.


Marcia Martin

About the Author: Marcia Martin

Old geek woman, current sitting on Longmont City Council. Saving the planet on weekends. My words, and my errors, are my own and don’t necessarily represent the opinion or policy of the City of Longmont.
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