GOLDEN, COLORADO — The radio silence at the Senate campaign headquarters of GOP candidate Rep. Cory Gardner says it all: the Obama administration’s Monday announcement of new emission rules for existing coal-fired power plants is unlikely to have much of an impact on that crucial political race in Colorado.
Gardner, a young and aggressive challenger to incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, hasn’t been shy about attacking his opponent on other aspects of energy policy. But Gardner has been silent regarding the EPA’s new rule to regulate carbon emissions from power plants, even after Udall called it a “good start” and promised he would “fight to ensure it complements the work we have already done in Colorado.”
Gardner’s campaign spokesman did not return a call for comment on the rule.
Gardner’s apparent reluctance to try to harvest political hay off the EPA rule reflects a local reality: switching to cleaner sources of energy is an old story in Colorado, and voters here have made it clear they support the transition to a clean energy economy.
“I don’t think it’s a big issue for voters,” said former governor Bill Ritter, ticking off a list of clean energy victories, most of them bipartisan, in his state dating back a decade. The net result of those initiatives, Ritter said, means “it won’t be difficult for Colorado to implement because we are a long way down the road in being able to meet the [EPA’s] 2030 goal way ahead of time.”
Ten years ago, Colorado became the first state in the nation to adopt a renewable energy standard via a ballot initiative. That 10 percent by 2020 standard for large utilities has twice been strengthened by the state legislature, first to 20 percent and more recently to 30 percent. Along the way municipal utilities and rural electric co-ops have been included in less rigorous renewable energy requirements.
Four years ago, the legislature along with the state’s largest utility, Xcel, agreed to an ambitious plan to cut air pollution by retiring coal-fired plants and replacing them with cleaner-burning natural gas plants and renewable energy. Hundreds of megawatts of dirty power are disappearing as a result, and the air and public health along the state’s populous Front Range are benefiting. Then a member of the state House, Gardner did not vote on the bill on final passage, which cleared the House 53-12 and the state Senate 20-13.
And earlier this year, state regulators struck a deal with big energy producers to adopt stronger air pollution rules on oil and gas operations, including first in the nation limits on releases of methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
As a result of all this progressive policy-making, Colorado appears to be well on the way to meeting the new federal emissions standards. As the Denver Post said in an editorial, the new EPA rule holds up Colorado as “a national model for taking on global warming at the state level.”
Citing Larry Wolk, executive director and chief medical officer for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the Post reports that “early word is that the state is already a third or halfway to meeting the targets, with much of the rest of the proposed reductions already in the works.”
And while the nation’s most coal-dependent utilities are facing major changes, Xcel Energy “estimates that since 2005, it has reduced carbon emissions from Colorado plants by 22 percent. By 2020, that number will soar to 35 percent.”
The past decade of efforts to reduce power plant pollution and deploy clean energy not only highlight the foresight of Colorado’s policymakers but that those efforts were not at all catastrophic to the state. As longtime columnist Mike Littwin put it in a recent Colorado Independent piece, “Colorado is not Kentucky. The state legislature already passed a law in 2010 that was not unlike the new proposed rule on coal-powered plants. The EPA rule gives the states flexibility, and Colorado already has its own ideas at work.”
“In fact, we’re already well on our way to meeting the would-be federal standards,” Littwin continues. “Jobs have not been killed. Prices have not skyrocketed.”
As Littwin also notes, the real energy issue here in Colorado this election season will not be coal but will revolve around a bushel of proposed ballot initiatives to give local communities more control over oil and gas drilling and fracking. Only one has gotten the green light to begin collecting signatures to get on the ballot, but decisions on the rest are coming soon.
Democrats, led by Gov. John Hickenlooper, have scrambled for several weeks to get a legislative solution to that nettlesome issue so Colorado won’t become a massive electoral playground for outside money led by the oil and gas industry. So far, no success on that front, though a special session of the legislature is still a possibility.
The conventional wisdom here has been that a fracking free-for-all in November would hurt Udall because of the expected massive spending by the American Petroleum Institute and its allied organizations. But a poll commissioned by local control advocates and released last month showed that 51 percent of respondents are more likely to support candidates who support more regulation of fracking by cities and towns.
The Denver Fox TV affiliate then reported that “multiple sources” were saying that Gardner was suddenly working behind the scenes to nurture a legislative solution so the fracking questions aren’t on the ballot.
“Absolutely not true,” said Gardner’s campaign spokesman.