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Gov. Hickenlooper might order ambitious cuts in Colorado's carbon emissions

August 24, 2016 Updated: August 25, 2016 at 1:50 pm
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Gov. John Hickenlooper might order a one-third cut in power plants' carbon gas emissions over the next 14 years despite a court-ordered stay that has derailed the federal Clean Power Plan.

If he does, Colorado Springs Utilities might need to revisit its plans for the coal-fired Martin Drake Power Plant, now scheduled to close in 2035.

Hickenlooper's proposed executive order, obtained by The Gazette, would direct state agencies to find ways to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 35 percent by 2030 compared with 2012 levels.

By comparison, the Clean Power Plan calls for a 2030 reduction of those emissions by 28 percent in Colorado compared with 2005 levels, when most plants emitted more CO2 than in 2012.

Implementation of the Clean Power Plan was put on hold after several states filed lawsuits challenging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's ability to make such drastic regulations.

Colorado lawmakers battled this year over how the state's Department of Public Health and Environment should respond to that stay. Ultimately, funding was reduced to the department's clean air division, making it clear that Republicans expected all work on the project to stop.

An executive order from Hickenlooper would put the work back on track.

Kathy Green, spokeswoman for Hickenlooper's office, said staff has circulated the draft proposal to stakeholders in the oil and gas industry, utilities and environmental groups to get feedback. After input is gathered, a path forward will be clearer, she said.

At Colorado Springs Utilities, "Our Electric Integrated Resource Plan modeled both with and without the Clean Power Plan, so the governor's order would probably not significantly change our board's decision to close the Martin Drake Power Plant by 2035," said Manager Mark Murphy. "We are on track to significantly reduce our CO2 emissions and invest in additional renewable energy resources and conservation programs in the coming years."

The Colorado Mining Association is evaluating the draft plan, said Stan Dempsey, president.

"We're looking at it in terms of the impact such an executive order would have on the future of Colorado's local communities ... how it would affect the Colorado coal industry and impacts on electric rates for all Coloradans," Dempsey said.

The governor's proposal says rising temperatures and violent weather related to global warming are a threat to Colorado agriculture, skiing, summer recreation and other economic sectors.

Daniel Steinberg, a senior analyst at the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, conducted a baseline study of emissions in Colorado. Using publicly available data from utilities around the state, Steinberg said, data show emissions declined between 2012 and 2015.

He credits the 2010 Clean Air and Clean Jobs Act, which required lower carbon emissions, and market factors such as cheaper natural gas and renewables.

"Colorado certainly needs to take some steps to meet the Clean Power Plan but is likely in a good position to do so," Steinberg said. "The targets are readily achievable."

Dempsey said the Clean Air and Clean Jobs Act was an effort to preempt anticipated federal policy.

"The state didn't get full credit for those (achievements) under the EPA proposal for the Clean Power Plan," Dempsey said. "Anticipating has not worked out so well for Colorado, and it's had very powerful negative impacts on rural Colorado."

Conservationists hailed the proposal as a positive step for Colorado.

"We wholeheartedly endorse the idea of more action to address carbon pollution in Colorado," said Pete Maysmith, executive director of Conservation Colorado.

"We've made significant progress, and it's important to continue to make additional progress given the adverse impacts of global warming on the state and our planet - impacts such as increased drought, increased frequency and severity of wildfires and reduced snowcap," said Howard Geller, executive director of the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project.

Such forward movement stokes the economy too, Geller said, including in Colorado Springs.

"Accelerating the retirement of the Drake plant, along with expanding renewable energy development and energy efficiency in the Colorado Springs area, can bring economic benefits, investment and jobs to the region."

"Colorado Springs Utilities needs to definitely pay attention to how the winds are shifting here," said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians, which threatened in March to sue Utilities over opacity monitoring.

The Drake plant repeatedly has come under fire from clean air activists, despite its record of meeting federal and state emissions standards.

Last year, Drake released 1.8 million tons of carbon dioxide, say records sent to the EPA.

Drake provides almost one-third of Utilities' power, and it does so more inexpensively than any other resources.

Although the plant isn't set to close till 2035, its 54-year-old Unit 5 will be eliminated by the end of 2017. Units 6 and 7, built in 1968 and 1974, respectively, could continue operating another 19 years.

Nationally, carbon dioxide makes up about 80 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, the EPA reports, and its atmospheric concentrations will last thousands of years.

It is a primary contributor to global warming, as documented by NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

"It wasn't by the widest of margins, but July 2016 was the warmest month since modern record keeping began in 1880," GISS Director Gavin Schmidt said Aug. 16 in a report available online at http://data.giss.nasa.gov. "It appears almost a certainty that 2016 also will be the warmest year on record."

New scientific achievements eventually could help, though.

◘ Researchers at the University of Washington converted carbon dioxide into fuel in one enzymatic step, Scientific American reported Tuesday.

◘ In Iceland, scientists transformed CO2 into rock, says a PBS report from Tuesday.

◘ At the University of Illinois at Chicago and the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory, researchers converted carbon dioxide into a usable energy source using sunlight, the website energy.gov reported Aug. 18.

◘ And at Cornell University, scientists developed a power cell that sequesters carbon dioxide and produces electricity, Science Daily reported Aug. 4.

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