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How is Colorado doing on cutting carbon emissions? Not great, state analysis says.

To meet ambitious 50% reduction by 2030 requires tougher limits on fossil fuels, more free transit and denser land planning.
Colorado’s overall carbon dioxide emissions (blue line) are falling, but not fast enough to meet state requirements built into law, represented by the stars at five year increments. The gap in required emissions cuts rises above 20 million tons by 2040, if policies don’t accelerate change. (Colorado Energy Office/RMI)

Colorado will fall short of its 2030 carbon dioxide reduction goals by nearly 12 million tons a year unless speed up policy changes with new efforts like expanded free transit fares, “clean mile” minimums and land use reform, state officials said Tuesday.

A new baseline analysis by Rocky Mountain Institute shows the overall Colorado economy creating 85 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2030, a key contributor to global warming. That would miss the state’s statutory target of 73.4 million tons — a 50% cut from the 2005 carbon benchmark — by about 15%, the new analysis says.

Colorado Energy Office executive director Will Toor said the assessment can be seen as a glass being “85% full.” Existing policy choices could make up some of the gap, with the conservative assessment leaving out the expected impact of rules being finalized in 2024 and tougher enforcement of existing emissions rules.

“The way we would describe it, it shows there’s additional work to do,” Toor said. “But also, with the policies that have been adopted to date, we’ll get up to about 80% of the 2025 target and about 85% of the 2030 target.”

For perspective, the coal-fired power station in Craig emitted just under 8 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2022, according to the EPA. The final unit of Craig will close in 2030.

Environmental groups and many local lawmakers have pointed to the carbon reduction gaps as proof Colorado needs to accelerate new regulations for transportation and the oil and gas industry, two sectors of the economy that they claim continue an outsize influence on emissions.

“We’re making progress for sure, but clearly it’s not yet enough,” said Jeremy Nichols, a senior environmental health advocate in Denver with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Given that we still have so many solutions at hand, it’s inexcusable for the Polis administration to not do everything possible over the next two years to ensure Colorado gets back on track.”

State officials sent out the new baseline Tuesday for comments, along with a list of new policy recommendations that could help reach the carbon cut targets in a revised state Greenhouse Gas Reduction Road Map. The Energy Office said agencies and legislators carried out 95% of the policy recommendations included in the last Greenhouse Gas Reduction Road Map, and state officials agree a new set of policy changes are needed to add momentum.

The carbon-cutting options suggested Tuesday — which would require a mix of legislative action and regulatory rule changes — include:

  • A renewed effort for land use regulation from the legislature and various state agencies aimed at building affordable housing, offices, retail and schools closer together to reduce driving miles and promote transit access. An ambitious package of housing and building bills failed in the 2023 legislature, but Gov. Jared Polis has said he will be bringing those ideas back for another try.
  • Expansion of the recent zero-fare program for public transit across Colorado; some big transit agencies like RTD in the Denver metro area offered free fares to all riders for all of July and August. RTD is now waiving fares for youth for the 2023-24 academic year.
  • Building of the Front Range Rail passenger train system, which as currently conceived would run commuting trains from Pueblo through Colorado Springs and Denver, then toward Boulder and Longmont, and up to Fort Collins.
  • Enforcement of recently passed “intensity” regulations on oil and gas production, which require a decline in overall carbon emissions from each unit of oil produced. The recommendations also call for completing abandoned well caps and reducing emissions from the trucks and machinery associated with oil production.
  • Creation of a “clean mile” minimum for big fleets of cars and trucks, combined with incentives to buy electric vehicles already provided by the state and federal government. (A past effort to create a cap on vehicle miles traveled for large company commuters and fleets was quickly killed by business interests.)
  • “Modernizing” the process of choosing sites for clean energy projects such as solar and wind farms and transmission, to avoid the delays of NIMBY objections and bureaucracy.
  • Expanding methane regulations for landfills and shuttered coal mines. Methane does not last as long as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere but contributes multiple times the warming impact of carbon.
  • “Strategic electrification,” or the identification of outdated natural gas infrastructure used in building heating, which could be replaced by centralized clean electric systems and distribution.
  • Regulations encouraging a “carbon management” system for Colorado, aimed at increasing opportunities for carbon capture and underground storage. Exploratory drilling for carbon storage projects is currently underway at various Colorado sites.

The Energy Office is not recommending more drastic carbon limits that some environmental groups have called for, including a moratorium on building natural gas hookups for heating in new housing developments, or denying oil and gas drilling altogether at certain times of the year or in certain locations.

Natural gas use in homes is one area where policy changes have already been adopted that may accelerate carbon cuts in a way that the conservative RMI modeling does not account for, Toor said. The legislature changed the way natural gas infrastructure is accounted for in construction allowances, which will encourage electrification with electric heat pumps and other clean appliances.

“The state continues to ignore the emissions gap in 2025 despite assurances for years that we will hit that target,” said Katie Schneer of the Environmental Defense Fund. “The assurances that we’ll hit the 2030 target ring hollow without a commitment to limit pollution across all major sources.”

The gaps add up to further climate disaster, Schneer said. The missed projections amount to 153 million tons of carbon pollution above the Colorado targets from 2020 to 2030, she said.

The new analysis shows the state falling short on a number of its carbon goals. The target set years ago for 2025 was a 26% reduction from 2005 benchmarks. But under current policy, Colorado is projected for 116.6 million tons of carbon emissions in 2025, missing the target by about 8 million tons. The targets were updated in the 2023 legislature to include a 75% reduction for 2040, and net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The RMI analysis shows the gap growing to more than 30 million tons above the target by 2040, state officials said.

“The materials are pretty optimistic and rosy, but the fact that we’re not on track to meet the 2025 reduction goal is alarming,” Nichols said. “Really it’s meant to be the pacesetter and it’s not a good sign when the pacesetter’s pace isn’t good enough to win the race. What this emphasizes is that the state really needs to roll up its sleeves over the next two years and they really need to start putting their foot down on major pollution sources.”

Like many environmental advocates, the Center for Biological Diversity wants Colorado regulators to push for earlier retirements of the remaining coal-fired plants, a shutdown of the high-polluting Suncor refinery in Commerce City and a cutoff of permitting for fracking wells or new gas-fired power plants.

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