Collaborating for a Greener Future: How Colorado Encourages Better Energy Decisions By CU Law Student Austin Flanagan

Most states have separate agencies responsible for environmental protection and energy planning, making collaboration between agencies a necessity to ensure that energy and environmental decisions do not undermine the achievement of one another’s goals. Collaboration between agencies promotes efficient planning, a clearer understanding of issues and solutions, and greater accountability with agencies cross-referencing each other’s work. Here, I draw on interviews from several state agency officials to analyze Colorado’s current collaborative framework and ways to secure that framework for the future.

The dominant threats to collaboration are agencies’ competing interests (e.g. a different weighing of economic and environmental impacts), a new administration taking office that emphasizes an adversarial rather than cooperative framework, and turnover in agencies that results in weaker inter-agency relationships.

Colorado agencies currently collaborate for three main reasons: The Clean Air – Clean Jobs Act mandates it, the Governor set a tone for it, and agency officials see the benefit in it (cultivated by strong inter-agency relationships). It is all three of these factors which have contributed to Colorado’s successful collaborative structure.

Though Colorado’s agencies have achieved successful cooperation historically, this cooperation was strengthened with the passage of the Clean Air – Clean Jobs Act in 2010. The Act is the primary piece of state legislation that requires energy and environmental agencies to collaborate. The Act encourages more natural gas production along with other “low emitting resources” and the retirement of coal-fired plants, which historically accounted for over half of Colorado’s energy production. The Act mandates all rate-regulated utilities that own coal plants to submit to the public utilities commission (PUC) an emission reduction plan. The PUC will then allow the Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) to comment on the utilities plan. The CDPHE analyzes the plans to ensure compliance with state and national emission standards. The CDPHE’s Air Quality Control Commission then has an opportunity to incorporate the plans into the regional haze element of Colorado’s State Implementation Plan (which is required by federal law).

The Act furthered Colorado’s cooperative environment by setting ambitious emission goals and mandating coordination between certain agencies. The act itself was the product of collaboration – it had broad bipartisan support from stakeholders on all sides including private energy corporations, conservation groups, and government officials.

Building on the momentum of the Clean Air – Clean Jobs Act, Governor Hickenlooper was quick to set forth a tone of collaboration. The Governor has continuously expanded on the goals set forth in the Act. He made clear that Colorado’s economy and environment depend on clean energy. With this in mind, the governor ensured that state officials collaborate to meet energy goals.

This tone of collaboration is enhanced by agency officials who see a general benefit in collaborating. Most of these agencies coordinate on a daily basis – sharing information and collaborating to solve complicated dilemmas. “Our jobs are to think through, beyond our spaces, what are the broader implications of a given proposal or issue…” A representative from the Colorado Energy Office, explained. “The end goal is to reach the best decision for all Coloradans and collaboration is the best way to do that.”

For instance, when the CDPHE considers a rule to set stricter emission standards for vehicles, it brings in many other agencies (often three or more) for consultation. The rule is refined in accordance with that input and consultation with other agencies continues throughout the process. This collaboration occurs despite the absence of a legislative mandate requiring cooperation.

Despite these successes, collaboration in Colorado is highly dependent on the preferences of agency actors and the governor. A new administration could enhance this collaborative framework, but it could also choose to appoint adversarial agency heads and set a tone of isolation. Or it could set an agenda that promotes adversarial interest within the agencies (as opposed to the shared interest in the Clean Air – Clean Jobs Act). It is this uncertainty which poses the biggest threat to Colorado’s collaborative environment.

Other states have taken note of this threat and implemented safeguards to ensure consistent collaboration. Some have merged agencies so that environmental and energy decisions are made by the same actors. For instance, Vermont streamlined the siting of wind power by housing all decision-making power in one agency. This agency is charged with balancing environmental concerns while ensuring economic benefits in promoting wind power. Vermont and other states with merged agencies have recognized that environmental concerns are the catalyst to energy policy.

Colorado’s Clean Air – Clean Jobs Act did well to bring agencies together in order to achieve the state’s energy and emission goals. The Act serves as a backstop to ensure there is a baseline of collaboration between certain agencies in reaching emission standards. It is certain today that the actors within these agencies go far beyond the Act’s mandate to reach the best energy and environmental decisions – whether this will be certain in the future is less evident. With this in mind, Colorado might consider strengthening its collaborative structure through additional state mandates or by merging agencies.

Austin Flanagan is a rising 3L at Colorado Law and a GWC Research Assistant.