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THE PODIUM | Transparency absent in push for ‘zero-emission vehicle’ standards

John Cooke

It’s been almost three months since Colorado’s governor signed an executive order directing state air quality regulators to begin the rulemaking process to adopt California’s “Low Emission Vehicle” (LEV) auto emissions standards. But surprise! The governor’s regulators at the Air Quality Control Commission (AQCC) are changing direction and instead moving to adopt the far more radical and costly California “Zero Emission Vehicle” (ZEV) standards.

Is this abrupt reversal just “democracy in action,” as claimed by the Hickenlooper administration? Or is it one of the most cynical (and potentially costly) games of regulatory bait-and-switch in Colorado history? Coloradans will have to draw their own conclusions. But if these rules aren’t stopped, in response to rising public opposition, Coloradans in years to come will be paying an escalating bill, in the form of higher motor vehicle prices and hundreds of millions in tax rebate subsidies.

There’s been no bait-and-switch, insist the regulators. The commission’s Aug. 16 decision to go beyond just considering California’s low emissions vehicle standards, upping the ante to also weigh adoption of that state’s even more radical zero emissions rules, was just “democracy in action,” claimed the governor’s top regulator. The panel was simply responding to the “vast majority” of comments it heard on the topic. But that explanation for this surprising detour is disingenuous to the point of dishonesty.

You can’t accuse the governor of bait-and-switch, it’s said, because the AQCC is an independent body and not legally bound by the words in the governor’s June executive order. But how “independent” is a panel dominated by the governor’s appointees? When he winks, commissioners nod, or vice-versa. Hickenlooper gets to appear relatively “moderate,” by asking for “only” half the loaf, while his hand-picked panel grabs for the full loaf, with an assist from friendly special interests who can turn bodies out for a hearing.

The AQCC’s actions should be an embarrassment to anyone who advocates accountability and transparency in government. “Democracy in action,” you say? By whose definition? George Orwell’s?

Here’s how the old switcheroo unfolded:

  •  The commission on Aug. 3 released a draft of the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) which explicitly limited the scope of the planned rulemaking to California’s LEV standards.
  • The 12-page published announcement for the Aug. 16 meeting specifically ruled out consideration of ZEV standards. ZEV standards were nowhere mentioned in the announcement — except for an explicit disclaimer that ZEV standards would NOT be discussed.
  • For that reason, trusting that the commission’s agenda was limited to consideration of California LEV standards, the legions of opponents of ZEV standards had no reason to attend the meeting or plan a public demonstration of opposition to ZEV standards.

That a “majority” of the advocacy groups attending the commission meeting requested action to promote electric vehicle sales is irrelevant and hypocritical, if there was no public notice that the subject would be debated or acted upon that day. By that same logic, mob rule is also “democracy in action” if the “vast majority” of participants support the action enthusiastically.

It is the height of bureaucratic hubris for an agency administrator to cite the preferences of a few dozen stakeholders as the justification for the commission’s decision to order CDPHE staff to prepare a new rulemaking adding California’s ZEV emission standards to the commission’s January 2019 agenda.

By its action, this “autonomous” rulemaking agency is asserting that because a group of advocates for California’s ZEV emissions standards spoke out on a subject that was not on the published agenda, the views and interests of millions of other Colorado citizens can be completely ignored.

According to this Hickenlooper administration version of democracy-in-action, the owners of over five million Colorado passenger vehicles, the over 200,000 Coloradans who purchase new vehicles annually, and the millions of Colorado taxpayers who will be required to subsidize the purchase of ZEV-compliant vehicles – all of those stakeholders have no choice but to accept this abrupt, unannounced change in the direction from the statements in the governor’s June executive order.

Yes, the governor’s commission has the authority to add any subject to its meeting agenda at any time for any reason. But to claim that it is reversing course in response to an overwhelming public demand is breathtaking in its dishonesty.

If this is democracy in action, then democracy in Colorado is on life support.

Author: Senator John Cooke, Colorado General Assembly
First appeared here in Colorado Politics.

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