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Editor’s note: A version of “How Kevin Priola became a reliable vote for climate legislation in Colorado” first appeared in Big Pivots, a newsletter produced by longtime Colorado journalist and former Vail Valley resident Allen Best.
Kevin Priola was at his home north of Denver early one afternoon in January 2015 when he noticed the snow that removed any lingering doubts about climate change.
“I saw these big, fat snowflakes falling. It was like March, the size of the snowflakes,” he says. “I asked myself, ‘What are they doing falling in January? Those are spring snowflakes.’ When it gets warmer there’s more moisture in the air and the snowflakes get bigger and heavier. The colder it is, the smaller the snowflakes. Big, fat snowflakes come in March and April. It brought home everything I had read and digested.”
A state senator in Colorado, Priola is unapologetically a Republican, as he has been since he was 17. He thinks Republicans better represent the interests of small-business owners and also guard Second Amendment rights.
If firmly a Republican, he has become a reliable ally of Democrats in legislation to accelerate the clean energy transition. He believes climate change must be addressed. As a pro-life Republican, he says, “It’s more pro-life ensuring that our great-grandkids grow up with the same quality of life on the planet that we have.”
Priola isn’t entirely alone as a Republican in support of energy and climate bills. Many bills have bipartisan support. For example, a law adopted in 2021 that pushes electrical utilities to become part of a regional transmission organization, a move that many executives say will be crucial to achieving 100% renewable goals, had strong Republican support. So did House Bill 21-1290, a bill with bipartisan sponsorship that delivered more money for the Office of Just Transition. It passed the Senate 32-2 and the House 48-15. Dissenting votes came from Republicans. House Bill 21-1052, which defined pumped hydroelectricity as renewable energy, had Republican sponsors but was approved unanimously in both chambers.
But a schism remains between the parties in the most aggressive action responding to climate change, and Priola bridges it more often than any other state legislator in Colorado.
This was evident in June when legislators and supporters gathered on a parking garage rooftop in downtown Boulder for remarks before Gov. Jared Polis signed bills into law. The location had been chosen specifically because of the solar panels on the parking garage. One of the bills, Senate Bill 21-261, is expected to spur deployment of solar in Colorado. The most salient feature allows something called virtual net-metering. With this, a tech giant like Google can have its employees in one location in Colorado and its solar production in another.
Priola was a prime sponsor of the bill along with three Democrats. In his time at the lectern, he described a future in which solar panels and storage become ubiquitous, renewable electricity powers cars and homes, and the business models of utilities will turn upside down.
“I see a day in the future when utilities sell most of their electrons and recover most of their costs in the middle of the night and in the middle of winter,” he said. “That will work for them. This (bill) will increase the adoption of solar energy and it will also help our children and grandchildren with benefits to the climate.”
He may have been the only Republican on the rooftop.
Priola began reading about climate change when he was in high school in the early 1990s. It was probably in a magazine like Time or Business Week. The family business at Henderson, located along the South Platte River about 16 miles from downtown Denver, was a commercial greenhouse.
The perfect temperature for growing was in the high 60s and low 70s, he says. When it got above about 78 degrees Fahrenheit, evaporative losses spiked and it became necessary to pour on the water.
“Growing up and seeing first hand some of the concepts and principles being discussed in the International Panel on Climate Change reports and other studies really kind of colored my perception on the issue as I followed it through the decades,” he says.
He didn’t expect tangible effects from climate change for 80 to 100 years. “I thought that’s when people would start noticing things are very different.”
Then he started seeing discomforting evidence. Little ski areas along the Front Range disappeared, probably for complex reasons, not just rising temperatures. An avid downhill skier since he was a boy, Priola thought he noticed the base area of mountain ski resorts getting mushy two to three weeks earlier, perhaps in February instead of March. Farmers in his district told him of longer growing seasons.
Temperature records broadly support the personal observations of Priola. In Colorado Springs, for example, maximum January temperatures increased 1.8 degrees for the 1990-2020 period used as “average” as compared to the period of 1980-2010.
This warming trend can be seen very clearly on a website called “Climate at a Glance” put together by a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. You can choose a statewide total or a county. Summit County, for example, has four ski areas, one of them, Arapahoe Basin, which began operation in 1946. There always have been swings in temperatures, some years warmer, others colder. Since the 1980s, there’s a clear trend of warmer Januarys. Like the children of Woebegone, all are above average.
In January 2015, when Priola saw those big snowflakes, he was reminded of all the reading he had done. Everything came together. He says it was like being in a military cemetery, where all the tombstones suddenly align.
Early in his legislative career, Priola was a less reliable supporter of clean energy. “I will be the first to admit that my voting record back then was spotty,” he says.
“It was partly the nature of the district I represented and partly feeling that maybe there wasn’t quite the precise need then for some of the policy changes,” he says. “Since then I have come to realize that I was incorrect.”
In the legislative session concluded in June, Priola was also a prime sponsor, with Democrats, of House Bill 21-1286. The law requires owners of buildings larger than 50,000 square feet to collect and report on energy use, an effort to improve energy performance. Priola calls it a reasonable measure “because it will improve efficiency and help Colorado achieve its economy-wide carbon reduction goals.”
In the 2019 and 2020 sessions, Priola sponsored a bill, Senate Bill 19-077, that pushed along the charging infrastructure for electric vehicles.
As evident in his purchases, Priola believes firmly in technological progress. Little more than a century ago, he points out, a woman could barely cross a New York street without dipping her prim Victorian dress in horse poo.
Priola today has three Tesla Powerwall battery packs at his home that can store the electricity produced by 71 solar panels. If the electricity goes out, he says, there’s no need to reset 12 clocks.
In 2018, he also purchased an electric car. He declines to identify which model. He will say that economically it’s been a good investment. “I have saved a ton of money by not spending it on gasoline. It’s good for the environment in terms of being better than internal-combustion technology. I’ll have it for a long time.”
In the legislative session beginning in January 2022, Priola wants to move the ball forward on recycling and composting. He points out that several large landfills exist in the eastern part of his Senate district, and some of his constituents are none too happy about it. Why not filch steel, glass and other components from the waste stream, eliminating need for mining? As for composting, it reduces methane, a primary greenhouse gas.
In supporting energy transition legislation, Priola says he is driven partly by what he believes is necessary and also partly by what is politically possible. His voters mostly live in Denver’s suburbs, although his district does extend eastward to encompass wheat fields and other farms plus a portion of Colorado’s Wattenberg oil-and-gas field. To represent those oil field workers, Priola voted against a bill in 2020 that the industry disliked. But he also points out he has a Vestas factory in his district, at Brighton, that makes nacelles for wind turbines.
Other Republican legislators tend to represent more rural areas, more heavily influenced by the oil-and-gas sector. And some remain skeptical of the human role in the warming climate.
State Sen. Don Coram, a Republican from Montrose, has been a key ally of Democratic legislators at times. Other times he has kept his distance. In the case of one bill this year, he was a co-sponsor but, after it was amended, voted against the bill. It was passed by the Democratic majorities in both chambers.
Notably, he voted against the legislation that set Colorado’s economy-wide decarbonization goals of 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2040.
“It is down the road, but it won’t happen by 2030. I can guarantee you that,” he says. “We are a carbon-based society. To say that we are going to totally change our economy to meet a goal like that, it is asinine. It’s crazy.”
Those bills that have a “practical chance of success” he will support. “Those that are a dream, I’m not there.”
Of Priola, he suggests impracticality.
“I like Kevin, but I can’t go as far as he does on the all-electric thing. I don’t see it working in Class A trucks, which have payloads of about 45,000 pounds. An all-electric truck would use 15,000 pounds for battery storage. Will it change down the road? Yes, but we’re not there yet.”
But Coram does sometimes side with Democrats. That’s unlike Sen. Ray Scott, a Republican from Grand Junction, and most other Republican legislators, who can nearly always be counted on as “no” votes.
From the perspective of one Democratic legislator, members of the two parties start from different viewpoints. One Republican state leader has said he’s unsure whether he believes in climate change. Others point to past droughts such as likely played a role in the exodus of the ancestral Pueblo from the Four Corners area about 1300, despite the evidence that the growing aridity is more than simply extended drought.
“That animates many of the political positions,” says state Sen. Chris Hansen, a Democrat from Denver, of the risk posed by atmospheric greenhouse gas pollution. “I am quite confident which one will be borne out by history.”
Priola, when asked whether he thinks he has changed the opinions of his Republican colleagues, says he’s not sure. “Sometimes I think it has at least given them pause to look more closely at legislation instead of in a knee-jerk way, but I have yet to have a colleague come to me and say you voted for it and so I’m also going to vote for it.”
When he has a reason, though, Priola will remind other Republicans that the party has a long history of supporting environmental protection dating to Abraham Lincoln’s signing of legislation that gave Yosemite to the state of California with the express purpose of protection.
“I’ve never yet met a voter who asks for dirty water and air.”
He does have differences with Democrats. “I think sometimes they let big labor extract too much flesh out of whatever proposal and that greatly increases costs to consumers,” he says.
In coming years, as even more evidence arrives of the risks posed by global warming, Priola expects fellow Republicans to step up with more solutions.
“It will be hard for policy makers in the future to not have some well thought-out arguments about how to deal with it,” he says. “It won’t be arguments whether climate change exists or not. It will be arguments about how to combat it.”
Priola sees atmospheric pollution resulting from fossil fuel combustion as a “debt unpaid.” It’s a bill now coming due. He sees the free market, if given proper motivation, the vehicle to address this and other environmental challenges.
Does that mean a carbon tax? He’s unsure. But whatever the mechanism to trigger the free market to create solutions, he’s convinced of the ingenuity of private enterprise.
Editor’s note: This story appeared on Colorado Newsline, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.