Colorado’s new governor, Jared Polis, has been something of a chameleon on energy issues over the years. Until now.
Polis was a founding father of the anti-fracking movement in Colorado who hastily scrubbed his resume of that item in time to run for governor. But the mask of moderation he wore as a candidate already is slipping, half a year after taking office. The question of where he really stands has now been settled, in a very unsettling way.
Not just the bills that he backed during the just-finished legislative session, but the other early moves he made through executive action, revealed a radical side to Jared Polis that could give middle-of-the-road Coloradans a serious case of voters’ remorse.
But finding ways to rein-in his ideological excesses could be challenging, given that Democrats now totally control the statehouse following sweeping victories last fall. Taking a chapter from Barack Obama’s regulatory playbook, Polis is politicizing and weaponing the independent regulatory bodies charged with making policy in Colorado, like the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and Public Utilities Commission. There are no checks or balances left, short of fighting Polis and his tone-deaf fellow Democrats at the ballot box or in court.
Polis temporarily moved toward the middle on energy issues by opposing a de facto drilling ban that was also on the ballot last year. But his opposition to Proposition 112 appears to have been a tactical retreat, designed to help get him elected, rather than an ideological reversal.
There were plenty of early warning signs that Colorado might have a radical on its hands, including his embrace of a discredited fantasy plan to move the state toward 100 percent renewable energy, not to mention his support for an energy tax (a.k.a. “carbon tax”). But many hoped that Polis was really a centrist on energy issues, like his Democrat predecessors, and that the weighty responsibility of being governor would temper his extremist tendencies. That hope was in vain.
How is this radical streak revealing itself? Let me count the ways.
More Power for Unelected Climate Czars
One of the first things Polis did after taking office was to foolishly double-down on a policy, initiated through executive order by his predecessor, John Hickenlooper, that puts the unelected “climate czars” on the California Air Resources Board in charge of Colorado’s vehicle emission standards.
Neither man sought public approval for this unprecedented sellout of state sovereignty and regulatory authority. They are ramming these policies through using supposedly independent regulatory bodies that are being hijacked and weaponized. With no other way to slow the process down, or get a fair hearing, auto industry interests have had to sue, correctly citing procedural shortcuts and process-rigging.
One auto industry estimate predicts that adoption of California’s zero-emissions vehicle rules will eventually add $2,000 to $3,000 to the cost of a new pickup, light truck, or SUV in Colorado—vehicle types in very high demand in this state. This isn’t just a surrender of state sovereignty unprecedented in Colorado history, but it follows a flawed blueprint, since vehicle emissions continue to rise in California, despite the most onerous and costly regulatory controls in the country.
Making It Up to the Energy Activists
Polis was also the hidden hand behind Senate Bill 181, which some rightfully have called the second coming of Proposition 112, given the equally devastating effects this anti-energy piece of legislation will have on energy providers and consumers. The bill had numerous Democrat sponsors, but it was really the governor’s bill, judging from the nearly total control he took in shepherding the bill through the process. Every negotiation that took place on the bill between lawmakers had to be run through the governor’s office, which isn’t the normal way things run in the legislative branch.
That means the governor also had a hand in the highly secretive manner in which this bill was written, without any of the normal input from stakeholders one would seek on a policy change this significant, and in the irresponsibly hasty way this bill was rammed through the legislature. That also seemed designed to minimize opposition and genuine debate. Statehouse Democrats undoubtedly share some blame for the cutthroat and irregular way the bill was handled. But the puppets also were obviously doing the puppeteer’s bidding.
It’s almost as if the governor, having disappointed anti-energy activists by his opposition to Prop 112, is now trying to make it up to them, by supporting the most blatantly anti-energy bill we’ve ever seen at the statehouse. Among many alarming provisions in the bill is one that will purge virtually all energy industry experience from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which is supposed to act as an impartial and independent regulatory entity, in a move designed to stack COGCC with appointees (all made by Polis) who are sure to share the governor’s anti-energy bias.
The lack of energy industry expertise and experience on COGCC greatly increases the likelihood that it will regulate recklessly, either out of ignorance or malice. Colorado is fortunate to have walked a sensible middle path on energy development. COGCC has done relatively valuable and responsible work because we’ve carefully avoided extreme politicization. Polis evidently intends to end that tradition.
I believe one author of the bill, including the provision purging energy expertise from COGCC, is the same individual Polis recently tapped to head the commission—meaning he helped write a bill that radically reinvents a regulatory body he was slated to lead. If that doesn’t raise questions about ethics and conflict of interests, I don’t know what does.
Radicalizing All the State Energy Commissions
Through their appointment power, governors already exercise an arguably undue influence over COGCC. But the Democrat governors who preceded Polis, Hickenlooper, and Bill Ritter respected the board’s independence enough not to stack it with green extremists or monkey-wrench a formula that has worked reasonably well. Polis is clearly breaking from such a common sense and restrained approach. And that doesn’t bode well for Colorado.
And it’s not just the COGCC that Polis and his statehouse allies hope to radicalize. A bill reauthorizing the state’s primary utilities regulator, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, included a laundry list of stealthy provisions aimed at pushing the PUC down a radical path.
Statehouse Democrats took what should have been a normal, non-controversial PUC sunset reauthorization measure and turned it into a Washington-style “Christmas tree bill,” stealthily packed with provisions that should have been run as stand-alone bills and arguably violate Colorado’s single-subject rule requiring that measures be narrowly drawn.
One stealth provision requires Colorado regulators to use President Obama’s 2016 “social cost of carbon” calculation in utility ratemaking decisions beginning in 2020. The SCOC is a questionable and controversial Environmental Protection Agency fabrication, which the Obama White House hoped to use as a tool for imposing energy taxes (a.k.a. “carbon taxes”) or facilitating cap-and-trade schemes.
It’s also just a convenient way to artificially increase the cost of fuel sources unpopular with green extremists, particularly coal and natural gas. It was a terrible idea at the federal level, which is why the Trump administration wisely reduced the estimated “cost of carbon” from $42 per ton to as low as $1 per ton, and something that only a legislature and governor bent on Obama-style regulatory shenanigans would adopt.
Greasing the Palms of Corporate Donors
Passing the bill didn’t just bring an early Christmas for overzealous regulators. Other provisions slipped into the bill do favors for companies allied with top Democrats.
Colorado’s adoption of a carbon pricing regime seems to establish the predicate for more radical moves to come, including an energy tax—something Polis signaled an interest in during the campaign, and might need to fund his renewable energy pipedreams—or a California-like carbon-trading scheme. Colorado ratepayers ought to be very worried about what all this means for their future energy bill.
Politicization of the PUC ensures that pie-in-the-sky Polis proposals like 100 percent renewables will be treated seriously, rather than laughed off as the crackpot ideas they are. Foisting off the plan’s implementation on to PUC is a slick move. It gives the governor cover when ratepayers eventually begin to feel the fallout. He and other Democrats can blame it on the “independent PUC,” even though its independence has been compromised and co-opted.
Ratepayers are the new “forgotten man” of Colorado politics and PUC deliberations. They ought to be foremost in mind, but these moves make them a beleaguered and exploited afterthought, if they are thought about at all, which turns the whole idea of a “public” utilities commission on its head.
We’ve Seen the Effects of This Before
Colorado suffered an earlier blow to its energy sector in 2010, with the passage of House Bill 10-1365. The bill similarly empowered PUC to pick energy winners and losers, with coal being the big loser in that case. As a regulated monopoly, Xcel Energy was given a guaranteed a 10 percent profit for every dollar it spent on building new non-coal power stations, inviting the closure of two big coal plants, Comanche 1 and 2, which delivered a severe blow to the state’s coal providers.
Fast-forward to the present day. With the passage of Senate Bill 181, Colorado’s energy sector is poised to suffer yet another body blow, this time aimed at oil and gas producers. It’s all part of the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Gas” agenda.
Perhaps the most radical move Polis has made on the regulatory front gets no media attention. That’s his behind the scenes effort to suppress and discount data showing that much of Colorado’s air quality originates out of state. Not sharing that critical data with the EPA, not showing Washington that mitigating factors are in play here, not only means that the best available science won’t be considered. It also virtually ensures that Colorado will fall further out of compliance with federal rules, resulting in an unjustified crackdown that could have serious economic consequences for the state.
State personnel were working toward presenting these facts to EPA, as part of a regular review process, under Hickenlooper, who had enough common sense not to incur EPA’s wrath for air quality problems beyond the state’s control. But astoundingly, Polis ordered them to stop that work and not bring mitigating factors to EPA’s attention.
Please, EPA, Crack Down on My Voters
This move has also been challenged in court, on the grounds that Polis arguably violated Clean Air Act rules by not bringing mitigating factors to EPA’s attention, meaning the “best available science” isn’t being used in decision-making. It’s too early to tell how that legal challenge will be resolved. But Polis and statehouse Democrats may be on their way to setting some kind of new Colorado record for inciting and provoking legal challenges, assuming anyone tracks such things, which could also echo the litigation-filled Obama years.
Why does Polis seem to be inviting an EPA crackdown on Colorado, for air quality “problems” we aren’t completely responsible for? It doesn’t seem to make sense, until one recalls the famous maxim from Rahm Emanuel about never letting a crisis go to waste. Maybe the false sense of crisis an EPA crackdown would bring is just what Polis thinks he needs, to justify these and other radical actions.
Yes, I know: that’s a cynical thing to say about the new governor. But based on what he’s done thus far, and his history of disguising his extremism on energy issues, I’ve reluctantly concluded that you can’t be too cynical in weighing Polis’s motives and maneuvers. Colorado needs to understand that they put an extremist in the driver seat and use any and every means at their disposal, including the ballot box and legal system, to force Polis to apply the brakes before he drives Colorado right off a cliff.