Polis promised funding for cleaner air during his State of the State. Climate activists say it still isn’t enough

January 13, 2022
220113-SOS-ENVIRONMENT-PROTEST220113-SOS-ENVIRONMENT-PROTESTHart Van Denburg/CPR News
Supporters of progressive environmental policies protest outside the state Capitol during the State of the State address by Gov. Jared Polis.

Weeks after the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history, hundreds of demonstrators held a rally outside the state Capitol and called on Gov. Jared Polis to take more aggressive action on climate change. 

The demonstration coincided with Polis' State of the State address. During his speech, the first-term Democrat promised the state would meet "the climate crisis head-on" through new investments to improve local air quality. Meanwhile, activists demanded his administration take a harder line on fossil fuels. 

"We need to phase out oil and gas," said Shaina Oliver, a member of the Navajo Nation and a field consultant for Mom's Clean Air Force who lives in Denver. "Black and brown people are being pushed to live near oil and gas in this state and we have a governor who wants to reduce taxes."

United For Colorado's Climate, a coalition of groups including 350 Colorado and GreenLatinos, organized the rally. Before the event, it released a list of demands that called on Polis to declare a climate emergency and detail plans to phase out all Colorado fossil fuel production by 2030. 

220113-SOS-ENVIRONMENT-PROTESTHart Van Denburg/CPR News
Supporters of progressive environmental policies protest outside the state Capitol during the State of the State address by Gov. Jared Polis.

The rally came after years of fierce climate battles among Colorado Democrats, who control all branches of state government. Since taking office in 2018, Polis has pursued a "sector-by-sector strategy" on climate change, favoring incentives to reduce emissions over strict mandates.

Last year, his office released a roadmap claiming those efforts would reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions 90 percent by 2050, compared to 2005 levels. 

The emphasis on business-friendly climate policies has drawn criticism from some environmental groups, which have fought for broad enforcement programs like California’s “cap-and-trade” market where companies buy and sell licenses to pollute. Climate hawks also point out that while Polis approved a 2019 law overhauling the oil and gas industry, his administration has continued to issue new drilling permits.

Those disputes have led to pitched battles with progressive lawmakers, but most Democrats expect less public acrimony during the 2022 legislative session ahead of the November elections.

State Sen. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, led a fight last year to give state air regulators far more power to enforce emissions reductions. Polis threatened to veto the bill before lawmakers significantly pared back their plans. 

Winter is now working with the Governor's Office on a package to boost air quality monitoring and enforcement while pushing new technologies like electric school buses. The administration has already set aside more than $420 million for the effort in its latest budget proposal.

"I think the measure of how successful the session will be is how many bills are signed into law," Winter said.

220113-SOS-ENVIRONMENT-PROTESTHart Van Denburg/CPR News
Supporters of progressive environmental policies protest outside the state Capitol during the State of the State address by Gov. Jared Polis.

Climate-friendly urban development could be another focus in the upcoming legislative session. In a recent emissions progress report submitted to the state assembly, the Colorado Air Quality Control Division encouraged lawmakers to considerer a state-wide building code that sets energy efficiency requirements and supports Colorado's climate goals. It also discussed incentives to promote more density and multi-family housing. 

Peter Sawtell, a Denver retiree who attended the rally, was unconvinced Polis would push rapid action to reduce emissions. He and his wife, Allyson Sawtell, each held signs demanding the governor declare a climate emergency, a move they said would prove the state’s commitment to tackling the crisis. 

"The legislature is the group that's been pushing the strong climate action in the state. Polis has talked a good game, but not followed through," Peter Sawtell said.

220113-SOS-ENVIRONMENT-PROTESTHart Van Denburg/CPR News
Supporters of progressive environmental policies protest outside the state Capitol during the State of the State address by Gov. Jared Polis.

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