Critics say Colorado’s climate plan falls short

Joel Dyer

Following the unveiling of several aspects of the federal Climate Action Plan this summer, including the Clean Power Plan and the Environmental Protection Agency’s methane regulations, Gov. John Hickenlooper released the Colorado Climate Plan on Sept. 16 without much fanfare.

“The goal of this document is to promote state policy recommendations and actions that help to improve Colorado’s ability to adapt to future climate change and increase Colorado state agencies’ level of preparedness while simultaneously decreasing our greenhouse gas emissions,” says Taryn Finnessey, climate change risk management specialist at the Department of Natural Resources and spokesperson for the multi-agency plan.

But while the plan is the result of a joint effort between several state agencies, it was subject to little public scrutiny before the final version’s release. Less than 15 “key stakeholders,” selected mostly by the agencies involved, were given a draft of the plan and asked to provide comments in May. A few additional groups, after hearing about the draft plan, formally requested to be included, but the draft plan was never released to the general public.

“It was not transparent,” says Kevin Cross, spokesperson for the 17-member Colorado Coalition for a Livable Climate (CCLC). While some of the CCLC members, like Fort Collins Sustainability Group, were able to comment on the draft plan after requesting a copy from their state representative, other members also asked and were denied.

“The public outreach process was extremely unusual for such an important issue,” says Gary Wockner, a scientist and environmental advocate who was not included in the commenting process. “I think the governor and his administration completely dropped the ball on probably one of the most important issues facing the state of Colorado.”

Finnessey says the limited stakeholder outreach “was really driven by time constraints and not anything else.” She admits some interested parties were not given the draft document because they requested the document too close to the comment deadline. And although other state plans have used a more “extensive, rigorous” process, whereby the draft document is released to the public followed by a comment period before a plan is finalized, it is not a requirement, Finnessey says.

Plus, there will be a number of public engagement sessions in the future, according to the plan, hosted by different state agencies and focused around water, public health (greenhouse gas emissions), energy (renewables as well as oil and gas industry regulations), transportation, agriculture, tourism and recreation and ecosystems (wildfires, forests and wildlife).

Even though there were no legislative hearings as part of the development of the Climate Plan, Finnessey did give an annual climate change report to the legislature and sought feedback from representatives on the state’s efforts.

“And really, while we had a limited, targeted stakeholder outreach process, this is the beginning of the dialogue, it’s not the end of the dialogue,” Finnessey says. “I don’t think that we have shortchanged any stakeholder or the public process at all. I think that going forward there are plenty of opportunities for folks to engage and help us shape our path forward.”

But the lack of public engagement isn’t the only issue critics have with the plan.

“Most of the document, in my opinion, is about adaptation — as climate change gets worse, how the state might respond,” says Wockner. “There’s just nothing of substance in there that has any kind of imperative or alarm bells around it.”

Unlike the federal Clean Power Plan, which calls for a 32 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, and the previous Colorado Climate Plan released by former Governor Bill Ritter in 2008, which calls for a an 80 percent emission reduction by 2050, the 2015 Colorado Climate Plan does not set forth specific greenhouse gas emission goals.

“We actively chose to focus on programs and policies and recommendations that result in real greenhouse gas emission reductions rather than just setting a goal,” says Finnessey. “Often times goals are set but the actual measures to implement those goals are not as well fleshed out. So we chose to focus on the development of programs and policies that will actually result in emission reductions in our plan.”

But Cross, for one, isn’t buying it. “The Earth’s atmosphere doesn’t care about good intentions and projects that you have implemented to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. What it cares about is the concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in it,” he says. “That’s really the bottom line. We cannot be complacent saying that we’re doing all these great things if they’re not resulting in very significant greenhouse gas emission reductions.”

The Climate Plan cites the 2014 Colorado greenhouse gas inventory, which projects increasing emissions throughout the state through 2030. Although, Finnessey argues the inventory doesn’t reflect the effects of all the state initiatives and programs and stands behind the plan’s statement that “Colorado is on the right track.”

“To say that we’re on the right track is just delusional,” Cross responds. “This is public relations, really more than anything else.”

He argues that a state climate plan should incorporate annual emission reduction goals that would end in carbon neutrality and then put together a plan for reaching those goals on an annual basis.

Finnessey says there are measurable goals as part of implementing the federal Clean Power Plan, which seeks to move away from coal-fired power plants. While this may be true, the federal plan has been criticized for its reliance on natural gas production, which also adds to greenhouse gas emissions, to meet energy needs. Plus, as of Sept. 4, Colorado is part of a multi-state lawsuit against the Clean Power Plan because “The rule is an unprecedented attempt to expand the federal government’s regulatory control over the states’ energy economy,” said Attorney General Cynthia Coffman in a press release announcing her decision to sue.

“To my knowledge, the Governor has committed to developing a plan for the implementation of the Clean Power Plan and [Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment] is moving forward,” Finnessey says. “At this time we have no further indication of what will happen with that lawsuit and given the time constraints that exist on implementing the [federal] plan, we are moving forward as though it is the law.”

Although Cross acknowledges “the good things Colorado is doing,” he challenges the state to develop an adequate plan with annual goals, much like Fort Collins and Boulder have done already.

“We need to start treating global climate change like the existential threat to civilization that it is. All governments have a role to play in this process,” he says. “Sadly, the 2015 Colorado Climate Plan does not even begin to rise to this challenge. We need to demand that our state government do better.”