Two steps forward, three steps back

Are Colorado’s GHG emissions going the right way?

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Boulder Weekly

At the beginning of August, the Obama Administration released its Clean Power Plan, which targets carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants. Since then, proponents of the plan in Colorado agree that the state is well on its way to meeting the emission reductions. In fact, Western Resource Advocates, a Boulder-based group dedicated to protecting the West’s land, water and air, estimates that “Colorado is currently on track to achieve over 85 percent of the reductions required to meet the interim goal in the Clean Power Plan, and approximately 70 percent of the emissions reductions required by the final goal.”

But while this may be true for the electric power sector, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) released the Colorado greenhouse gas inventory late last year that estimates total greenhouse gas emissions are still continuing to increase rather than fall. Meaning, Colorado is actually getting futher away from the 2007 Colorado Climate Action Plan goals.

To calculate the inventory, CDPHE used 2010 emission data and the Environmental Protection Agency’s state inventory tool to project Colorado’s overall emissions across all economic sectors for 2020 and 2030. The inventory takes into account the electric power sector, as well as oil and gas production, agriculture, transportation and waste management among others. Although the inventory shows greenhouse gas emissions from the electric power sector remaining fairly constant in the coming decades, other sectors, such as residential, industrial and commercial fuel use and oil and gas systems, are projected to increase. The end result is an overall continued rise of Colorado greenhouse gas emissions in the foreseeable future.

Ironically, the greenhouse gas inventory was released as directed by former Gov. Bill Ritter’s 2008 executive order, which followed his 2007 Climate Action Plan, both of which call for a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the 2005 levels by 2020 and an 80 percent reduction by 2050 across the state. In more tangible terms, this statewide goal would mean an emission level of 98.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (a common measurement of greenhouse gases) in 2020 and 24.6 million metric tons by 2050 as opposed to the 123 million metric tons released in 2005.

Critics have always viewed these goals as over-optimistic considering the lack of concrete policies in place at the time, one would at least expect the inventory to demonstrate some level of greenhouse gas emission reductions. Instead, the inventory shows an emission increase from 2005 to 2010 from 123 million metric tons to 130. Furthermore, it projects emissions levels of 134 in 2020, representing an 8.9 percent increase rather than the 20 percent decrease called for in the Ritter plan.

One major flaw of the greenhouse gas inventory is that it fails to consider state policies and legislation that have been enacted since 2010.

“We took the EPA tool, we customized it to fit Colorado as best we could but there are some limitations to it that prevented us from including all of the state actions,” says Chris Colclasure, CDPHE air pollution division planning and policy manager. “So it reflects some of the benefits from the renewable energy standard but not all of it. It does not reflect any of the benefits of the Clean Air Clean Jobs Act, which will make a significant change in how we produce energy. And it does not have the benefits of our 2014 air quality rulemaking that limits emissions of methane and volatile organic compounds from the oil and gas sector. So those are some pretty significant ongoing actions that will reduce emissions in Colorado that are not shown in the inventory.”

When asked how Colorado’s emissions measure up in light of these programs, Colclasure couldn’t give a definite answer. He says that information will be reflected in the next greenhouse gas inventory, scheduled for 2019 or possibly sooner from another source. “We’re hoping that we’ll see the benefits of these programs in data that’s compiled by the United States Energy Information Agency as well, and that data could come out sooner,” Colclasure says.

Big energy companies do report their emissions to the Public Utilities Commission and according to that data Colclasure says “5.5 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions [were] prevented because of the Clean Air Clean Jobs Act and the renewable energy standards in the year 2012.”

Plus, the inventory doesn’t factor in the federal Clean Power Plan, which Colclasure says will drive large reductions from the largest source category: fossil fuel-burning power plants. He is also confident that Colorado will meet the standards set forward by the plan.

Regardless, Colclasure says that with a growing population and growing economy, the state does project greenhouse gas emissions in Colorado to continue to rise, although the rate of emissions per person is decreasing. “If the total population grows, that offsets the benefits of these programs to some extent,” he says. “The more people you have the more emissions you will have, even if each person is emitting less.”

These emissions come in the form of transportation (more people, more cars), increased residential energy use in addition to the growing number of natural gas and oil facilities throughout the state. Thousands of additional oil and gas wells are expected over the next 20 years.

“The inventory relied on the best available data and modeling tool at the time it was developed. Population growth and economic growth does lead to increased emissions,” Colclasure concludes. “But there are a number of state-level programs and national programs taking effect as we speak.”

Stacy Tellinghuisen, senior energy/ water policy analyst from Western Resource Advocates, says the inventory is most likely dated for Colorado and does not represent the progress the state has made. “It’s probably a very useful tool for evaluating current emissions and historical trends, but the electricity industry is in such a dynamic transition right now, that it likely doesn’t project future emissions well,” she says.

According to Western Resource Advocates, emissions from the electric power sector are projected to decrease in the coming years, not simply remain steady as the inventory estimates. However, Tellinghuisen estimates they will start to rise again in 2022.

Regardless, it remains confusing to continually hear Colorado is doing well with emission reductions and then see the official state projections predicting an increase. “It sort of makes it sound like the left hand isn’t talking to the right hand,” Tellinghuisen says. She advises using the greenhouse gas inventory with caution, although she wasn’t able to release concrete emission numbers from her research or comment on other sectors of greenhouse gas emissions outside of electric power.

The bottom line is we are nowhere near meeting state targets of reducing overall emissions by 20 percent by 2020. While the state says the greenhouse gas inventory projections aren’t accurate, it’s the only concrete data they have to refer to.

In his critique of the inventory, Kevin Cross from Fort Collins Sustainability Group admits it doesn’t take into consideration Clean Air Clean Jobs, or the renewable portfolio standards that have passed since 2010. His group calculates that if these two factors were considered, emissions could possibly drop by 4 million metric tons, lowering the 2020 projections to 130. However, this is still a 5.7 percent increase over the 2005 levels, as opposed to the 20 percent decrease required by the Climate Action Plan. And they are only rough estimates, Cross says. “As citizens of the state of Colorado we really need to be asking the CDPHE to do better in tracking our emissions, and we certainly need to ask our entire state government to put a plan together and get us back on track.”

While state agencies and stakeholders continue to say Colorado is ahead of the nation in implementing policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and that we are well on our way to meeting reduction goals, state-released information and projections of greenhouse gas emissions beg the question: Is Colorado really on the right track to reduce emissions?