Published in the Denver Post on July 6th, 2020

While Colorado is leading the way on climate action, its accountability to climate justice remains elusive as the state is still way off track to meet legally required greenhouse gas reduction targets.

This lack of climate progress is putting Colorado’s most disproportionately impacted populations—Black and Latino communities, low-income neighborhoods, and indigenous peoples—at tremendous risk. This has to change.

In 2019, Gov. Jared Polis signed into law House Bill 1261, which committed to reducing statewide greenhouse gases 26% by 2025, 50% by 2030, and 90% by 2050. This landmark legislation also called for regulators to prioritize achieving these reductions in communities experiencing disproportionate environmental harms and risks from sources of climate pollution.

In other words, Polis’ commitment to climate action wasn’t just to curtail pollution, but to do so where the pollution disproportionately threatens the health and welfare of people of color, low-income neighborhoods, and tribal communities. Recognizing the vital importance of achieving climate justice, in 2019 Colorado’s Legislature also passed Senate Bill 96, which required the Polis administration to propose new regulations to achieve the state’s greenhouse gas reduction targets. The law set a deadline to propose these new rules by July 1, 2020.

That deadline has now passed and Colorado is nowhere near meeting its greenhouse gas reduction goals and nowhere near achieving climate justice. Reports by both nongovernmental organizations and the state’s own consultants show that under our current trajectory, we are not even close to being on track to meet our 2025 and 2030 emission reduction targets. With no near-term success in sight, the prospect of long-term climate progress is wishful thinking.

The consequences of this missed deadline and lack of progress are all too real for people living in the shadow of the Suncor oil refinery north of Denver. This refinery has been all over the news in the past year because of ongoing air pollution violations. Even though regulators this year fined Suncor nearly $9 million, the company continues to report unlawful releases of toxic gases like hydrogen sulfide, benzene, sulfur
dioxide, and more.

All this air pollution impacts the neighboring community where more than half the residents live below the poverty level and more than 75% are people of color. It’s a poster child for environmental injustice, where a dangerous source of air pollution disproportionately affects people who are underprivileged, disenfranchised and disempowered.

And it’s a poster child for climate injustice. Suncor’s refinery happens to be one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in Colorado, every year releasing as much climate pollution as 200,000 cars.

With Gov. Polis’ commitment to climate action, one would think addressing the Suncor oil refinery’s pollution would be near the top of the list of strategies to reduce greenhouse gases. It’s not.

In fact, the state’s most recent list of potential strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions doesn’t even mention disproportionately impacted communities, let alone facilities like Suncor. Making matters worse, Colorado regulators aren’t scheduled to consider adopting any new rules to limit climate pollution until 2021 at the earliest.

We know Gov. Polis has good intentions, but the state’s failure to reduce greenhouse gases has very real implications for the health and well-being of the most vulnerable Coloradans.

July 1, 2020, has passed with no meaningful progress toward meeting the state’s climate goals. Legal deadlines matter. This isn’t just about urgent action to reduce greenhouse gases to protect our global climate, it’s about achieving environmental justice in this state.

Good intentions aren’t enough to confront the climate crisis. For equity and justice, Gov. Polis has to get Colorado back on track to meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets and live up to its commitment to meaningful climate action.

By Jeremy Nichols and Ean Thomas Tafoya