Published in the Denver Post on September 29th, 2023

As a Colorado resident, I am proud that our state has strong laws for greenhouse gas emissions reductions and environmental justice, but these laws mean nothing when regulations are not strong enough to put them into action. The rules the Air Quality Control Commission passed on Friday in the Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Energy Management in Manufacturing Phase 2 rulemaking are an egregious example of this problem.

Impacted communities have been waiting too long for real reductions of pollution and other cumulative impacts from industry. Climate change likewise needs immediate action. The Environmental Justice (EJ) Act of 2021 brings those issues together, but the rule passed by the Commission falls short of meeting its requirements.

The rule passed by the Commission, far from achieving near-term reductions, delays reduction requirements until 2030, and emissions will actually increase in the near term. This means far more greenhouse gases will be emitted cumulatively than if reductions were required to begin now and steadily decrease until 2030.  The associated toxic pollution in disproportionately impacted communities near 14 of the 18 regulated facilities will also be allowed to continue unabated until the reduction requirements in 2030.

How does waiting until 2030 for required emissions reductions prioritize impacted communities and how does this help Colorado do its part in limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius – the stated intent of the law? The rule also creates much uncertainty about pollution reduction in disproportionately impacted communities and certainly doesn’t prioritize them; there are many loopholes that allow polluters to get out of reducing pollution at their factories.

The public spoke out en masse against the proposed rule. Hundreds of people asked for better, stronger rules. Multiple environmental and environmental justice groups legally became “parties” to the rulemaking to oppose the proposed rule, and others submitted oral and written public comment. The Environmental Defense Fund presented an alternate proposal — developed and backed up by respected experts – that would have achieved greenhouse gas reductions 18 times greater than the rule passed by the Commission..

The Commission could have selected the alternate proposal submitted by the Environmental Defense Fund, or they could have directed the division to write new, better rules (as two commissioners suggested) — but instead most voted to place industry profits over the health of the people and the urgency of the climate crisis.

Some of the commissioners only seemed to care about greenhouse gas reductions when a show of concern could support weaker rules (suggesting that requiring industry to reduce emissions in Colorado would drive business elsewhere and lead to more emissions out of state). During deliberations, one of the commissioners expressed doubt that decreasing greenhouse gases was even the intent of the EJ Act (although this intent is clearly stated in the legislative declaration), and others implied that since industrial emissions are a small percentage of total statewide emissions, perhaps reducing them doesn’t matter. The amount of time spent discussing what industry needed and wanted dwarfed any conversation about the real impacts to people’s health and the serious threat to our climate caused by not achieving near-term reductions.

Several of the commissioners thanked and praised the parties to the rulemaking, saying what wonderful industries we have in Colorado and how much they learned about industrial processes. As they referenced industry in glowing terms while saying nothing about any of the other parties, it appeared that in their minds, environmental groups were not even parties, as though invisible. The relationship that exists between this commission–which is supposed to be protecting public health and the environment—and environmental groups is so far from the friendly camaraderie shown to industry it is darkly comical.

In the 3-day hearing, lighthearted banter among the commissioners, division and some parties was a surreal contrast with emotional testimony from community members who are poisoned by pollution and people who are fighting air pollution and climate change like the matter of life and death it is. I wonder how many members of the public felt insulted. I know I did.

Heidi Leathwood is a climate policy analyst for the environmental organization 350 Colorado