November 12, 2019

Time to Wake Up: Colorado

As-prepared for delivery

Mr./Madam President, I ask unanimous consent that Lucia Simonelli, a AAAS fellow in my office, be granted floor privileges for the remainder of this Congress.

I rise today for the 257th time to call this chamber to wake up to the threat of climate change. 

Today, I report on my trip to Colorado to see how climate change is affecting life in the Centennial State, and to learn more about the remarkable action Coloradans are taking to confront climate change.

Colorado is the 18th state I have visited on my climate road trips.  Typically, these trips land me in states where locals fighting for climate action need some bucking up.  Often, I remind those people that there’s hope, even if their state legislature is captured by fossil fuel interests and climate change is a dirty word at their local hangout.

That wasn’t the case in Colorado.  In fact, it’s a state on a major climate change winning streak. Coloradans were the ones bucking me up.

I saw that right off the bat at the Alliance Center in downtown Denver.  The Center’s Chief Operating Officer, Jason Page, took me around the LEED-certified space, which is part business incubator, part rallying point for an array of organizations fighting for climate action in Colorado and throughout the country.  Jason and his colleagues hosted me and local environmental leaders to discuss the work they have done – and they have done a lot.

Just in the last year, Colorado passed and signed into law seven important climate and clean energy bills.  They include legislation to set targets for cutting the state’s climate pollution relative to 2005 levels by at least 90 percent by 2050.  The legislature passed four – count ‘em – measures to boost the adoption of electric vehicles.  And it passed bills to help move to new energy-efficient home appliances; to ease the transition to renewable energy for Xcel, Colorado’s largest utility; and to collect long-term climate change data, so the state can craft even more smart legislation to combat climate change and build resiliency to climate consequences.

To hear how Colorado is going to hit its renewable targets, I met with Xcel, state public utility commissioners, and Governor Jared Polis.  Their message to me was simple:  it’s a challenge, but we’re up for it. 

They certainly aren’t backing away from that challenge so far.  On top of the state’s renewable goal, Xcel has committed to an 80 percent cut in carbon emissions across its portfolio by 2030, and to reach 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2050.  Xcel, at the direction of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, is now incorporating the social cost of carbon—a key measure of the long-term damage done by carbon pollution—in its planning process.

On top of forward-looking policy, Colorado is a leader in developing clean energy technology.

For that, I visited Panasonic’s Pena Station NEXT project, a collaboration between the city of Denver, Xcel, the Denver International Airport, the state department of transportation, and Panasonic. The project is designed to show what a smart city powered by renewable energy looks like.  It includes nearly two megawatts of solar, a massive battery storage system, a facility to test autonomous vehicles, and an operations center that can integrate all the technology around the project for better efficiency. 

At the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden I saw some of the most advanced wind, solar, and other renewable energy technologies in the world.  The national lab is testing the next generation of wind turbines, hydrogen fuel cells, autonomous vehicles, solar panels, smart grid technology, and more.  NREL’s job isn’t just to develop these technologies; it’s also to help private industry adopt them, bringing clean energy to scale and creating jobs in the process.

Here I am at NREL painting solar technology onto a plate, then immediately drawing electricity from it.  Very cool.

By the way, at NREL I couldn’t help but notice this familiar logo from TPI Composites – a company that makes top-of-the-line composite materials in Rhode Island.  Naturally, because NREL needs the best, they work with Rhode Islanders on developing next-generation materials.  I’m proud to report that our Composites Alliance of Rhode Island includes TPI.

Colorado feels the urgency because the mountain west is feeling the effects of climate change more and more every day.

I met with leading climate scientists for a briefing at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, overlooking the Flatirons at the feet of the Rocky Mountains.  NCAR’s Drs. James Done, Laura Read, Daniel Swain, Jackie Schuman, and Bill Mahoney told me about their important research into climate change’s effects in the west: how vegetation is withering; how wildfires grow more frequent and intense; how hydrology changes as weather patterns shift and temperatures rise throughout the region; and how extreme weather events like sudden downpours and prolonged droughts are becoming the new normal. 

In Fort Collins, I met with dedicated public servants from across the federal government who specialize in land management and climate adaptation.  These public servants spent their careers to protecting our public lands, and they are witnessing firsthand the devastation wrought by climate change.  They described their battle to safeguard stands of old growth sequoias, to furiously rebuild beaches and dunes in the face of rising seas and stronger storms, and even to cover melting glaciers with sheeting to prevent them from melting so quickly. 

They love these lands, and do everything in their power to protect them.  The fact that they battle on, in spite of the pace and severity of the destruction, is inspiring.

Speaking of inspiration, I closed out my trip with an event organized by the group Protect Our Winters to hear what climate change means to the winter sports and outdoor industry.  Skiers, snowboarders, and industry executives told me about the climate threat to the multi-billion winter sports industry in Colorado, which relies on plenty of snow and cold weather to thrive.  Professional skier Cody Cirillo told me,

I fear there will be no more snow by the end of the century.  I fear a whole ski culture will cease to exist.  I fear economic impacts on Summit County and all other mountain towns.  I fear the loss of an industry that has given me so much.  . . .  I fear that kids will not get the opportunity to see a first snow, to feel winter’s inaugural bite on the nose, and to miss out on so many wonderful lessons . . . .

These fears are driving Cody to speak out.  He and his fellow POW members aren’t giving in.

There are many reasons Coloradans are acting on climate and transitioning their energy mix away from fossil fuels.  They want to protect their beautiful natural landscape.  They want to sustain their winter sports and hospitality industries.  They want a healthy, prosperous future for their children. 

They also recognize strong forces coming in the energy market that will shift away from fracked natural gas and coal to carbon-free wind and solar.  Coloradans know it’s better to lead that shift than wait ‘til the bottom drops out.

We have known for a while that coal is facing big problems.  In fact, Murray Energy, a major coal company with cozy ties to the Trump administration, just filed for bankruptcy last week.  Alarms are going off about natural gas, a type of fuel that the fossil fuel industry touts as less dirty. 

In Boulder, Paul Bodnar, managing director of the Rocky Mountain Institute, highlighted a report RMI issued in September showing just how quickly this shift is going to make the economics of natural gas untenable.  RMI’s report reads:

[We are approaching] a turning point for the relative economics of clean energy resources (including wind, solar, storage; energy efficiency; and demand flexibility) versus new gas-fired generation.  For the first time, the rapidly falling costs of renewables and batteries are allowing optimized combinations of these resources . . . to systematically outcompete gas-fired generation on a cost basis while providing all the same grid services.

Here is a graph showing how fast clean energy will overtake gas plants.  RMI has found that clean energy resources beat on price over 80 percent of proposed gas-fired power plant capacity; and that clean energy will render 70 percent of proposed gas plants “uneconomic” by 2035.  In other words, it won’t make sense even to run let alone build those uneconomic plants.  They’ll be shuttered, stranded assets dealing a blow to the company that owns them and leaving consumers in the lurch.

Over half of your fleet being stranded is catastrophic.

It gets worse for natural gas.  A new investigation by the watchdog group Unearthed, based on data from fossil fuel industry expert Rystad, finds that the big oil companies’ promises to curb methane emissions from natural gas extraction appear to be bogus.  The report found that massive industry players, including ExxonMobil and BP, were among the worst when it comes to wasting and burning off methane. 

That’s a double-whammy:  natural gas is worsening our climate crisis faster than we knew and some of our biggest fossil fuel companies are driving the problem.

Those findings are also interesting because one of the biggest fossil fuel industry trade groups, the American Petroleum Institute, just launched a seven-figure ad campaign to convince America that “we’re on it” when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.  

Not so much, apparently.

If you pair natural gas rapidly becoming “uneconomic” in the face of renewables with emerging data showing a much bigger methane problem for the industry, the net result is gloomy for fossil fuels.  That’s why it’s a smart move to unhitch your energy market from fossil fuels now.  Savvy move, Colorado.

Mr. President, Americans are already acting on climate.  They get the problem we face.  States, counties, industries, and communities are acting.  It is time for us to wake up and join them.

I yield the floor.