Written by Ron Bennett

The 2021 legislative session was BIG for climate progress in Colorado. With the relentless support of 350 Colorado’s grassroots base, our state legislature passed climate solutions ranging from improving air pollution protection for frontline communities to expanding renewable energy and public transportation and blocking efforts to prop up the fossil fuel industry.

350 Colorado’s Lobby Week in March welcomed over one hundred volunteers who reached out to their legislators at the start of this year’s session. Guided and encouraged by intern Jessica Issacs, we met with over twenty legislators or their aides and urged support for strong climate legislation.

Early efforts focused on six bills ranging from banking to energy to toxins. Four of these ultimately passed and were sent to the Governor…

HB21-1162 | Management of Plastic Products | Rep’s Valdez & Cutter, Sen’s Gonzales & Garcia

HB21-1189 | Regulate Air Toxics | Rep’s Benavidez & Valdez, Sen’s Gonzales & Moreno

HB21-1238 | PUC Modernize Gas Utility DSM | Rep. Bernett, Sen. Hansen

HB21-1269 | PUC Study of Community Choice Energy | Rep’s Hooton & Boesenecker, Sen. Donovan

Unfortunately, PERA Divestment didn’t make it out of committee and Public Banking never found a sponsor this session, but we’ll try again next year.

Over fifty climate-related bills were introduced in this year’s whirlwind session. Three-quarters of those passed, making progress on air quality, climate justice, clean energy, forest resilience and soil health. Bills that passed while opposed by 350 CO included two that promote expensive and unproven carbon capture and sequestration and “renewable gas.”

The premier climate bill of the session was SB21-200, sponsored by Sen. Winter and Rep. Jackson. The bill stalled under a threat of veto from Governor Polis who objected to the bill’s hard limits on greenhouse gas emissions. Negotiations by the bill’s unwavering sponsors – bolstered by visible grassroots support – led to important provisions of senate bill 200 being amended into HB21-1266 | Environmental Justice Disproportionate Impacted Community. Many firsts such as defining disproportionately impacted communities, establishing greenhouse gases as a pollutant and an emissions cap-and-trade system will become law under the house bill.

Another first and significant milestone is the inclusion of the social cost of carbon – and methane, carbon’s short-lived but potent counterpart – in climate legislation. For example, in both HB21-1238 | Gas DSM (above) and Sen. Fenberg’s SB21-246 | Beneficial Electrification bill, the social cost of greenhouse gases is an important metric in determining the benefits of energy efficiency programs that public utilities offer. These metrics are tied to a federal standard that can change as priorities and climate science evolves. By considering the financial cost of climate change, air quality and public health, energy efficiency and renewable energy sources gain a measurable advantage over current incentive programs.

Together with Rep’s Amabile and Valdez and Sen. Priola, Senate majority leader Fenberg also sponsored SB21-261 | PUC Encourage Renewable Energy Generation. This bill increases the allowable capacity of utility customer’s solar installations from a maximum of 120% of historic usage to 200%. Multiple properties under single ownership and multiple tenants can now share in on-site solar generation. A step in the right direction toward the inevitable deployment of distributed generation and resilient microgrids. Other bills directing the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to modernize directives regarding distributed generation and require transmission utilities to join regional transmission organizations also offer the promise of grid resiliency.

On the other hand, “renewable gas” bill SB21-264 and Innovative Energy Technologies bill HB21-1324, which endorses non-renewable, zero-emission tech’ such as carbon capture and sequestration are steps in the wrong direction. Promoting utility-scale projects that expand gas infrastructure or prolong the use of fossil fuels is a gift to investor-owned utilities and their shareholders. Ratepayers will shoulder the burden of these costly and ineffective projects and will be stuck paying for them – along with other stranded assets – for decades.

This was a big year for the building sector. In addition to DSM bills 1238 and 261, a handful of bills address building energy performance, fund building weatherization and local renewable energy infrastructure. Small steps toward building “decarbonization” or in other words, the difficult task of phasing-out fossil fuels for building heating. HB21-1303 | Global Warming Potential for Public Project Materials is one of the most comprehensive embodied carbon bills in the country. By considering the greenhouse gases emitted from the production and transport of concrete and steel for state-owned buildings, roads and bridges, the bill encourages the use of low-carbon, local sources for these materials.

In transportation, SB21-238 | Create Front Range Passenger Rail District promises expansion of mass transit service with needed connections to regional rail service. While only 20% of funds in SB21-260 | Sustainability of the Transportation System will fund electric vehicles and charging stations, it does establish the social cost of greenhouse gases, incrementally increases gasoline tax and funds e-bikes, scooters and electric buses with a fee on (non-EV) rideshare and gig delivery services.

Much of the climate-related legislation this year builds the groundwork to limit CO2 and other greenhouse gases by considering the social cost of carbon, a historic first for our state and an example for our nation, according to Jan Rose, CCLC Spokesperson and Legislative Maven, but for one caveat…

“It’s all about the Benjamins and we can’t tell you how disappointing it is that the results of climate change received far more funding than addressing the CAUSE of climate change!”

Jan goes on to point out that despite historic levels of funding, wildfire mitigation alone received five times the funding that climate change adaptation and mitigation received. While the sheer quantity of climate-related legislation is encouraging, the scope and scale seems feeble compared to the increasingly frequent and tangible effects of global warming.

We’ve come to expect opposition from fossil-fuel interests and investor-owned utilities that result in watered-down legislation, but this year Governor Polis’ veto threat effectively prevented the passage of senate bill 200. The only bill that proposed sector limits on greenhouse gases aligned with Colorado’s GHG Pollutant Reduction Roadmap. We need to keep reminding the Governor of his promise to take bold climate action.

On the regulatory front, 350 CO policy analyst Duncan Gilchrist reminded me that there’s still lot’s of work to be done. AQCC, COGCC, PUC and CDOT are tasked with rulemaking based on new legislation and the roadmap. The 2021 Colorado legislative session may be over, but advocacy work at state agencies continues while planning for next year’s session has begun.

Acknowledgement: All of us on the 350 CO Legislative Committee are very grateful for Jessica and Duncan’s leadership and Jan’s guidance and tenacious advocacy. CCLC has published Jan’s comprehensive and insightful 2021 Colorado Climate Legislation Summary. A must-read for all Colorado climate advocates.

Want to learn more about climate legislation? Your voice can have a positive impact on Colorado policy. Please consider joining 350 Colorado’s Climate Legislation and Policy Committee. Just complete the form, check the box for “Climate Legislation” and press Sign up!