Critics say Hickenlooper’s clean energy pledge falls short of needed climate action

By Kelsey Ray, The Colorado Independent

Donald Trump wants to eliminate the Clean Power Plan. Hickenlooper says Colorado will press on — but environmental experts say even that won’t be enough to fight climate change.

Gov. John Hickenlooper was quick to assure Coloradans this week that the state will continue working towards a more sustainable energy portfolio despite President Donald Trump’s call to dismantle environmental regulations such as the Clean Power Plan.

“We will keep building a clean energy future that creates Colorado jobs, improves our health and addresses the harmful consequences of a changing climate,” he said in a statement Tuesday. Trump’s directive, he said, “will not deter Colorado’s efforts.”

Conservation Colorado was “very pleased” with Hickenlooper’s announcement, spokeswoman Jessica Goad said. “We look forward to working with the governor on concrete actions to keep moving Colorado and the West towards having the cleanest air in the nation and a booming clean energy economy,” she added.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association also supported Hickenlooper’s remarks. “We all agree that protecting our environment is important,” said spokesman Scott Prestidge. “States, not the federal government, are leading the way when it comes to responsible regulations and statutes already on the books.” Prestidge noted that Colorado’s oil and gas regulations apply “irrespective of the Clean Power Plan.”

A spokeswoman for Hickenlooper’s office told The Colorado Independent that if market trends like cheap natural gas prices and declining renewable energy costs continue, “and utilities continue to invest in renewable energy as they have in recent years, the State will be well-positioned to meet the Clean Power Plant targets, regardless of what the federal government does with the Clean Power Plan.”

Some environmental groups worry that while Colorado’s action on climate may seem noteworthy when compared to Trump’s inaction, it will actually fall far short of what will be required to ward off catastrophic climate change.

“These are clever talking points, using Trump as contrast,” said Cliff Willmeng, an environmental activist who organizes Front Range communities to fight oil and gas development in their neighborhoods. “However, Hickenlooper’s record of accommodating the drilling of tens of thousands of oil wells speaks quite clearly.”

Aaron Weiss, media director for Center for Western Priorities, acknowledged that Colorado’s methane rule is a model of good policy for the rest of the country. “That said, Colorado still had 509 oil and gas-related spills in 2016, 58 of which impacted groundwater,” he said. “So Colorado and the federal government could and should be doing more to protect our water supplies and wildlife.”

Speaking to assembled media in his office, Hickenlooper emphasized Colorado’s progress towards renewable energy, saying that the state is on track to meet the Clean Power Plan’s emissions reduction targets regardless of Trump’s action — and without the need for an explicit executive order from the governor’s office.

The Clean Power Plan set a nationwide goal to lower power plant carbon dioxide emissions by 32 percent by 2030. To do its part, Colorado was asked to cut its own power plant emissions by 30 percent by that year. When the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the Clean Power Plan last February, Hickenlooper vowed that Colorado would continue to aim for those targets.

Last August, a draft executive order leaked from Hickenlooper’s office, which called for a 35 percent reduction in power plant carbon dioxide emissions by 2035, a target even stricter than the Clean Power Plan’s. Amid backlash from both the left and the right, who felt the action was insufficient and overly arduous, respectively, Hickenlooper never finalized the order. Yesterday, he confirmed that it is off the table.

“In Colorado, we’re past what [the Clean Power Plan’s] goals are,” he said, adding, “If you’re achieving most of what you want to do, what’s the point of doing an executive order?” When one reporter began a question with the premise that the governor was “content” with current action, Hickenlooper stopped him, saying jovially, “We’re never content. Don’t try and put words in my mouth.”

But some environmentalists perceived a congratulatory tone in the governor’s recent statement they say is unwarranted.

“I would characterize it as totally inappropriate,” said Kevin Cross, spokesman for Colorado Coalition for a Livable Climate. He coauthored an editorial in the Boulder Daily Camera last August, in the wake of Hickenlooper’s leaked order, criticizing those goals as inadequate. Compared to the more substantial targets proposed by former Gov. Bill Ritter in 2007, Cross said, Hickenlooper’s proposal was “substantially less ambitious.”

In 2007, Ritter signed an order calling for strict emissions reduction goals: a statewide cut in all greenhouse gases, from all sectors, of 20 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050. The inclusion of all sectors was noteworthy because the energy sector makes up only about 30 percent of Colorado’s total emissions.  Other sectors include transportation, agriculture and residential fuel consumption.

Said Cross, “The earth’s atmosphere cares about total greenhouse gas emissions, not emissions from a single sector.”  Under Hickenlooper’s now-scrapped order, Cross said, the state will see just an 8 percent statewide reduction in total greenhouse gas emissions by 2025.

Cross’ editorial also criticized Hickenlooper’s 2015 climate plan, which lacked measurable targets or goals and made no mention of Ritter’s order (though the governor’s office says it still stands). That plan predicted that while Colorado’s electric power emissions would decrease, overall greenhouse gas emissions would rise 10 percent by 2030 compared to 2010 levels.

As Hickenlooper correctly points out, Colorado’s progress remains in line with national targets. The Clean Power Plan also addressed power plants, rather than total emissions. But environmentalists like Cross and Willmeng believe that the state should be setting its sights higher, as Ritter did, rather than settling for federal policy goals they say are inadequate to fight climate change. An analysis by Scientific American in 2015 found that “the Clean Power Plan is not enough,” and an article in the Guardian found the same thing. That is in addition to reports that the Paris climate agreements will not be enough to keep global warming levels below the safe level of 2 degrees Celsius.

Center for Western Priorities’ Weiss, admitting that “everything does look better in comparison when you’re talking about slashing the EPA budget,” said that all states should be looking at what they can do better. The group is currently working on a state report card which will compare the policies of ten western states, including Colorado.

Amid varying reactions from environmental and industry groups, one sector was particularly pleased with Trump’s order: The coal industry.

“We’re obviously very pleased with the president’s actions,” said Stan Dempsey, president of the Colorado Mining Association. He said the Clean Power Plan was “designed to keep coal in the ground.”

Dempsey blames Democratic policies, not the natural gas market, for killing coal. But he also acknowledges that Hickenlooper has consistently looked out for the coal industry, particularly in rural areas. The governor’s support of the Clean Power Plan was a decidedly anti-coal move, Dempsey said, but he appreciates that Hickenlooper never spoke out in favor of the coal lease moratorium. Trump’s directive on Tuesday also reversed that nationwide moratorium.

“The coal industry is very happy to compete with the natural gas industry in terms of competing for which fuel is going to be used. What we’re not happy about is having the boot to our throat, as the Obama administration had done.”

Thanks to Trump’s order, Dempsey said, “that boot has been lifted off our throat.”

 

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