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Cooke still point man in legislative battle against Clean Power Plan

Authors: John Tomasic, David O. Williams - January 26, 2016 - Updated: January 26, 2016

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State Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, a former sheriff. (via CookeforColorado13.com)
State Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, a former sheriff. (via CookeforColorado13.com)

The network of electric providers, conservative think tanks and local government officials working to head off implementation of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan has a point man at the Colorado Legislature, and he is not missing a beat.

Two weeks into the 2016 legislative session, Sen. John Cooke, a Republican from the heart of the Front Range oil and gas patch in Greeley, has introduced two bills that take aim at the plan, which requires power plants to cut carbon emissions by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, largely by shutting down or converting coal-fired plants to alternative fuel sources.

One of Cooke’s bills couldn’t be more timely. After several state attorneys general, including Colorado’s Cynthia Coffman, failed to win a stay of the plan from a federal court Thursday, Cooke’s Senate Bill 46 jumps into the ring like a tag-team wrestler, working from another angle to stall implementation of the Obama administration plan.

“Well, it wasn’t really a surprise that the court in D.C. struck down the stay request,” Cooke told The Colorado Statesman. “Unfortunately, the bill is more relevant now.”

The “Preserve State Clean Power Plan Options Act” aims to “slow down the implementation process” in part by suspending it “until all [related] lawsuits are done,” Cooke told members of three rural Colorado advocacy groups, including some representing coal mining areas, who were visiting the Capitol Friday.

In effect, Colorado wouldn’t need a stay from a court because it would have passed a stay for itself, written by Cooke.

The Senator has teamed Senate Bill 46 with Senate Bill 61, his “Ratepayer Protection Act,” which would make Gov. John Hickenlooper’s Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), which is charged with developing implementation, pay any new costs generated by the Clean Power Plan.

Cooke has been the main figure behind a drive among Republicans at the Capitol to bring the Legislature more formally into the process by requiring that lawmakers sign off on any plan developed by the CDPHE. A bill he introduced last year to that effect failed to pass. Legislative sign-off is also included in Senate Bill 46.

The state brand and multi-state power-industry complexity

Sen. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, said Republican attempts to paint the Clean Power Plan as job-killing overreach won’t sell in the long run in Colorado.

“The [plan] builds on the Colorado brand of a clean lifestyle and a clean state with natural beauty,” he told The Statesman. He said incentives to do a better job at energy conservation and to bring more wind and solar power into the energy mix will lower the costs for energy consumers.

“The fact is this is a real opportunity to advance our clean brand,” he said. “I think most Coloradans probably agree. All these scare tactics of raising your [electric utility] rates is just baloney.”

Geoff Hier, spokesman at the Colorado Rural Electric Association, said the association board members haven’t yet fully considered Cooke’s new bills but that they support the idea of greater lawmaker involvement in the process.

“We think legislative oversight and the involvement of the state’s Public Utilities Commission make sense. The Department of Health just doesn’t have the expertise on issues of cost and reliability,” he said, adding that power generation and transmission is complex, partly due to the fact that it doesn’t neatly track with state boundaries.

“We’re watching how the plan will be implemented, not just in Colorado, but also in new Mexico, Arizona and Nebraska.”

Jones doesn’t think Cooke’s bills are the kind that will address those concerns, mainly because he thinks they’ll be designed more to “make a point” than to win the support they will need from Democrats to pass  in a Legislature where power is split between the chambers.

Whack-a-mole and a steady tide of court cases

Still, the perception of a “whack-a-mole” style tag-team approach on the right to stop or at least slow implementation of the Obama administration plan bolsters confidence among the plan’s detractors.

In the wake of the Thursday’s District of Columbia appeals court ruling, Colorado Attorney General Coffman said she felt disappointed but a long way from defeated.

“[I] remain confident the courts will see these overreaching and onerous regulations as an unacceptable breach of state sovereignty,” Coffman said in a prepared statement. “This was a procedural ruling and the case is far from over.”

Coffman in October butted heads with Hickenlooper when she joined a 24-state lawsuit seeking to block the Clean Power Plan.

Hickenlooper sought a Colorado Supreme Court opinion on the legality of Coffman’s decision to join the lawsuit, but the justices denied his petition.

Hickenlooper Spokeswoman Kathy Green told The Statesman that the administration was pleased with Thursday’s court ruling.

“[P]rotecting public health remains our top priority,” Green said. “Colorado has already made great progress in clean air and clean jobs, and worked extensively with the Environmental Protection Agency to ensure we have the time and flexibility we need. The state remains focused on implementation.”

Although it refused to grant a stay in the case, the appeals court also announced Thursday that it would fast-track a hearing on the merits of the case, setting oral arguments for June 2.

“The fact the court expedited its consideration of the case is a clear indication of how serious this matter has become,” said Coffman. “I will consult with my colleagues in a majority of other states from across the country to determine whether to appeal this order to the [U.S.] Supreme Court.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has twice before ruled the EPA has the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the EPA can regulate greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources such as power plants, and in 2007 the high court ruled 5-4 that the EPA should have regulated new car exhaust to curtail greenhouse gas emissions.

Conservation Colorado Executive Director Pete Maysmith hailed Thursday’s ruling as a victory for “cleaner air and climate action.”

“Today’s legal victory highlights the folly of Attorney General Cynthia Coffman’s misguided crusade opposing this common sense plan to cut carbon pollution,” Maysmith said in a prepared statement. “This ruling validates the work being done in Colorado and across the country because we know too much is at stake to wait.

A pair of Democratic state representatives also issued a press release on Thursday hailing the court’s decision.

“The official tally came in this week: 2015 was the warmest year in recorded history, breaking a record set the year before,” said Rep. KC Becker, D-Boulder. “The Clean Power Plan will help the United States, which is by far the biggest per-capita consumer of energy on the planet, to bend the curve away from runaway climate change.”

Becker was echoed by Rep. Max Tyler, D-Lakewood.

“Now that the Clean Power Plan has passed this legal test, the states must move aggressively to implement it,” Tyler said. “Here in Colorado, we didn’t wait around to be told that greenhouse gas reduction was the right thing to do. Because we’ve always been a leader on clean air, we have a big head start on other states in complying with the plan.”

State Senator Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, who supports Cooke’s efforts, countered that “implementation of the Clean Power Plan plan will increase energy costs on the poor, the elderly, and the state’s agricultural producers,” and therefore should be subject to review and approval by the General Assembly.

“We need legislation that ensures that the state’s elected legislature is the one signing off on any plan, as we are the representatives of our constituents, rather than have bureaucrats in Washington D.C. ram this down Colorado’s throat.”

This piece was reported and written by John Tomasic in Denver and David O. Williams in Vail.

john@coloradostatesman.com and davido@realvail.com

John Tomasic

John Tomasic

John Tomasic is a senior political reporter for The Colorado Statesman covering the Colorado Legislature.


David O. Williams

David O. Williams

David O. Williams is a freelance writer based in Eagle-Vail, Colo. His work has appeared in more than 50 online and print publications in Colorado and around the nation.


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