A wind turbine in southern Colorado. Electrification would aid both pollution problems along the Front Range and combat high gas costs. Credit: John Herrick

State legislators representing Boulder and nearby counties gave updates this week on climate legislation they’ll be working on in the coming year at an Empower Hour hosted by Empower Our Future — a Boulder-based group dedicated to accelerating local, clean energy. From fire insurance to air quality, potential bills span the range from limiting global warming to adapting to its consequences.

State Senator Steve Fenberg who represents Boulder County highlighted air quality as a priority for 2023. Fenberg said that though there has been a lot of progress from a legislative perspective on air quality, “most of that work hasn’t actually translated, in the near term, in improving our air.” 

Last fall, the Environmental Protection Agency ranked air along the Front Range as “severe” for its high levels of ground-level ozone, which can cause asthma and other health issues. 

Fenberg said 2023 will see several bills dealing with ozone by addressing emissions from oil and gas — the biggest contributor to ground-level ozone on the Front Range — as well as transportation and industrial sources.

Fenberg also said that “given the fact that natural gas prices are so volatile,” now is a perfect time to make the case to transition to electric. (Xcel Energy’s portfolio in Colorado is about 30% gas and more than 60% fossil fuels, coal plus gas.) 

One consideration, however, is making sure that any economic benefits of electrification are passed down to “regular folks.” The senator cited the fact that utilities are still making record profits while everyday people are struggling to pay their heating bills. 

Senator Lisa Cutter, representing Jefferson County, has thus far focused on zero waste in her time in the statehouse — co-sponsoring the plastic bag ban bill. Now, she says 2023 will bring more opportunities to further explore ways to build Colorado’s circular economy — a means to fight climate change through reusing, repairing and recycling products and food waste that would otherwise end up in landfills, a major contributor of global warming emissions.

This includes a possible feasibility study on biochar — the process of making carbon-absorbing charcoal from heated plant material (often from beetle-killed trees) and storing it in soil — and a compost study, as “food and organic waste is a really big problem in the state” due to its landfill methane emissions.

She also touched on the need for encouraging young people to enter fields that will grow as the climate change continues pummeling communities, like wildfire professions.

“We’ve done lots to provide resources to those areas,” she said. “But if we don’t have the workforce, those resources aren’t going to be deployed properly.”

And Cutter said statewide building codes for those living in the wildland urban interface — where flammable landscape abuts homes — could be in the works. While Boulder County and the City of Boulder have codes preventing homeowners from building with some materials that put their home, and future firefighters defending that home, at risk, that’s not the case across the state. (The City of Boulder, for instance, doesn’t allow shake shingle roofs anywhere in the city due to their flammability.)

“The fire community thinks there should be a basic, minimum standard,” Cutter said.

Cutter is also co-sponsoring a bill with Junie Joseph, Boulder’s statehouse representative, to help homeowners switch to electric devices by requiring home warranty contracts to provide reimbursement for gas devices.

Judy Amabile, House legislator representing parts of Boulder, Clear Creek, Gilpin and Larimer, said fire insurance is a problem to tackle in 2023. In the Marshall Fire, only 8% of homes that submitted insurance claims had guaranteed replacement coverage, meaning they could rebuild a similar home without worrying about an insurance cap, according to the state Division of Insurance. Already those living in mountain communities are having trouble finding insurers given the fire risk of the surrounding landscape.

Unless something is done, Amabile said, “we will have a situation where people can’t find any homeowners insurance at all.”

Amabile mentioned another focus for her in 2023 was the predicament oil and gas workers are facing as those jobs start to go away. Efforts are underway in many places to create a “just transition” and find paths for affected workers to enter climate-friendly industries.

A community member near the meeting’s end asked whether nuclear power would play a role in Colorado’s future of clean energy. In response, Amabile said that political dysfunction at the statehouse would get in the way of “the kind of effort we would need to do a good job with nuclear, particularly with the waste.” 

Another community member asked about Governer Jared Polis’s take on land use. (Polis has said creating more housing is a priority, and that “housing policy is climate policy,” because housing built near transit and jobs reduces transportation emissions. This has worried some, however, that the state will impede on local rights, as localities have historically controlled their own land-use policies.)

The question also asked about how Colorado will deal with its ongoing population growth. Senator Fenberg said that “the vast majority of decisions will remain at the local level,” but because the state has invested money into housing, it might increase its influence in terms of removing some of the red tape that adds cost and time to getting more housing built.

Kyle Brown also spoke briefly during the meeting. Brown was selected to replace the House seat vacated by Tracey Bernett who resigned after a criminal lawsuit was brought against her by the Boulder County District Attorney. Brown said in talking to people in his new district, he heard “how important taking climate action is to them.”

Tim Drugan is the climate and environment reporter for Boulder Reporting Lab, covering wildfires, water and other climate-related issues for Boulder with a focus on explanatory and solutions journalism. He also is the lead writer of BRL Today, our morning newsletter. Tim grew up in New Hampshire and graduated from UNH with a degree in English/Journalism. Email: tim@boulderreportinglab.org.

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