Mail-in ballots are already being cast, and we’re a little more than two weeks away from knowing who will emerge from Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary as the nominee. For anyone to the left of, say, Zell Miller, it’s been an underwhelming campaign, defined by the specious efforts of three major candidates comfortably within the party’s centrist mainstream—U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, and former state senator Mike Johnston—to rebrand themselves as the kind of bold left-progressive outsiders that the Democratic base increasingly favors.
Polis, who’s probably still the slight favorite to fend off a strong challenge from Kennedy, entered the race with a reputation as a crusader for environmental causes—somewhat undeservedly so, considering that his famous push to place a pair of anti-fracking initiatives on the 2014 ballot ended with his controversial decision to withdraw them in a last-minute agreement with Gov. John Hickenlooper. But Polis has made environmentalism a centerpiece of his primary campaign, highlighted by a plan to put Colorado on a path to generating 100% of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2040. It’s a pleasantly ambitious-sounding goal, and it’s had all the right morons howling about its infeasibility.
Apply even the slightest bit of scrutiny, however, and “100 by 40” begins to look a lot like a microcosm for the primary as a whole: modest, conventional policy dressed up as progressive audacity, in a party whose voters are hungry for the latter but whose donors and power brokers still strongly prefer the former. And it’s fair to wonder whether what Polis isn’t saying about energy and the climate is a lot more important than what he is.
On his campaign website, Polis doesn’t shy away from the gravity of the climate crisis and the world’s urgent need to confront it. “Climate change is real and the consequences are becoming a reality,” reads a pull quote on the “Energy” page. “I’m running on a plan to bring Colorado to 100% renewable energy by 2040, we can’t afford to wait.”
It would unquestionably be good for the environment and the climate if Colorado were to generate all of its electricity from renewable sources like wind, solar, hydropower, and others. But the fact is that here, unlike in many other states around the country, it wouldn’t be nearly enough.
Over the last two decades, Colorado has become one of the nation’s leading producers and exporters of climate-destroying fossil fuels; natural gas production has almost tripled since 2000 to almost 1.7 trillion cubic feet annually, while crude oil production, which had never exceeded 40 million barrels annually as recently as 2011, has skyrocketed to reach 115 million barrels or more in each of the last three years.
Those are far greater quantities of oil and gas than Colorado could ever consume on its own. Even as electric utilities have greatly ramped up gas-fired electricity generation over the last decade, Colorado only used about 97 billion cubic feet of natural gas for electric power in 2016, according to estimates from the Energy Information Administration. That’s less than six percent of the total produced by the state in the same year.
Of course, many of the climate gains to be made in the electric power sector—which accounts for a little less than a third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in any given year—will come from phasing out coal, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels. But this transition is already well under way, and has been for years. Just last week, Xcel Energy, Colorado’s largest power supplier, announced that it’s targeting a 55 percent renewable energy mix by 2026, driven by the planned retirement of several coal-fired plants. That a for-profit monopoly, accountable only to its shareholders, is volunteering to achieve 55 by 26 absent any real governmental pressure or intervention is necessary context for judging the supposed bold ambition of 100 by 40.
Indeed, the strangest thing about Polis’ plan is that it’s not much of a plan at all. It calls for no new laws or regulations on energy producers or utilities—like raising the state’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS), a common method by which states across the country have mandated increases in green energy production. Instead, it would establish various incentives for energy efficiency and investment in renewables, and rely on the market to do the rest. For now, at least, that’s not an entirely unreasonable expectation, given the increasingly low costs of new solar and wind projects.
But even if the energy market continues to cooperate, and the interests of the for-profit megacorporations that dominate it continue to fortuitously align with the well-being of the climate, there’s still the matter of Colorado’s enormous and expanding fossil-fuel extraction industry. The state could well achieve 100 by 40 (or something very close to it) while still producing trillions of cubic feet of natural gas and hundreds of millions of barrels of oil annually, to be exported and burned elsewhere. There’s nothing in Polis’ vision that precludes a future like this, and you can be sure that Colorado’s immensely powerful and profitable oil and gas industry isn’t going to up and decide to stop drilling any time soon; as reported by the Denver Business Journal last week, it’s currently applying for permits to drill new wells at an unprecedented rate, with thousands of applications waiting to go through the state’s rubber-stamp approval process and join its nearly 55,000 active wells in production.
That’s bad—bad for the health and safety of Colorado’s people, bad for its environment, and bad for the climate at large. There are few if any places in the country where a dense residential population is coming into greater conflict with fossil-fuel development than in the fast-growing Front Range communities that stretch across the oil- and gas-rich Denver-Julesburg Basin in the northeastern quarter of the state. Deadly explosions, toxic spills, and the well-documented health risks associated even with routine industry operations jeopardize the lives of Coloradans who live near its many wells, tanks, pipelines, and other facilities. Emissions from oil and gas sites are a major cause of elevated ozone levels across the region, and the airborne pollution can affect air quality entire counties away. And in addition to the emissions caused by the end uses of oil and gas, methane leaks that occur in the course of natural gas extraction—which a great deal of research suggests are often underreported—are themselves a major contributor to greenhouse gas buildup, one that is in many ways more potent and dangerous than carbon-dioxide emissions.
Colorado’s governor can do little to reduce external demand for the state’s fossil-fuel resources. But it’s well within the governor’s power—not to mention an urgent moral imperative—to begin to restrict its supply before the world bakes itself to death. No level of investment in renewables or battery storage or efficient grids will be enough if powerful oil and gas producers aren’t ultimately coerced into leaving the vast majority of the planet’s remaining fossil-fuel reserves in the ground—as even Hickenlooper, a longtime industry defender, managed to admit in an interview last year. If the state’s next chief executive is serious about confronting the climate crisis, he or she can act in any number of ways to do just that—not the least of which is to appoint state regulators who will apply a far higher degree of scrutiny to pending drilling permits than Hickenlooper and other previous governors have.
Whether Polis or any of his primary rivals are actually interested in taking such actions remains to be seen; their campaigns have offered a lot of talk about carrots for green energy, and little in the way of sticks for fossil fuels. One interpretation of the lack of tough talk is a reluctance to give the industry any more ammunition in its inevitable efforts to bury the Democratic nominee under an avalanche of attack ads and astroturf. Another, less generous reading is that they’ve made the full extent of their intentions quite clear, and will be happy to continue steering Colorado on its current path—toward a future of feel-good, business-friendly greenwashing, an oil and gas industry that’s barely if at all diminished, and a planet that’s only getting hotter and hotter.