Environment

RAQC Passes Draft Plan for Ozone With Last-Second Amendment From Polis

The Regional Air Quality Council voted to send the draft of its State Implementation Plan for dealing with ozone to Colorado's Air Quality Control Commission during its August 5 board meeting. But first, the RAQC approved adding a preface to the SIP calling for further work on air quality, as well as an amendment proposed by Governor Jared Polis’s administration that asks for extra investigation into the federally mandated requirement to add reformulated gasoline when an area is downgraded to severe non-attainment.

In April, the Environmental Protection Agency decided to downgrade the status of the northern Front Range from a serious violator of federal ozone standards to a severe violator because the area failed to bring ozone below the EPA’s 75 parts per billion National Ambient Air Quality Standard, which the agency established in 2008. The northern Front Range also does not comply with the EPA’s new standard of 70 parts per billion, adopted in 2015.

Along with a stipulation to start requiring reformulated gasoline by 2024, other federal mandates added to the SIP draft include more locations being labeled and permitted as major sources of air pollution, stronger emission caps, and contingency measures that will automatically kick in if the plan fails to bring the area into compliance.

The RAQC projects compliance with the 2008 standard before 2027, which is when the area must achieve that goal, but says it does not expect to achieve compliance with the 2015 standard by 2024, which is the date for compliance with that standard. As a result, many environmental groups and local elected officials have called for the SIP to include more control measures, beyond just the federally mandated requirements.

“We should take this downgrade seriously and respond with much more aggressive and enforceable control measures than we have adopted in the past,” Lakewood City Councilwoman Jeslin Shahrezaei said at the August 5 RAQC meeting. “We're concerned that, once again, the plans will not include enough emissions reduction strategies to make a real difference with the polluted air that the majority of the state's residents breathe every summer.”

To that end, the RAQC introduced a preface that suggests that the next rendition of the SIP, which will come in 2024, should include the pursuit of much stronger controls and offer suggestions for measures the state could consider in the interim.

“I agree with a lot of the public comments that we've heard that said we can always do better,” said Mike Foote, RAQC chair. “We could make some more aggressive proposals, and I think that this preface lays out a good road map for where we are, what we should be analyzing and the areas that we should be going toward. I think it's a good road map and good notice to stakeholders.”

Kristin Stephens, Larimer County commissioner and RAQC boardmember, suggested that for those who think the RAQC hasn’t gone far enough, the preface shows what it wants to do in the future. Adding the preface to the SIP passed unanimously.

The amendment offered by the Polis administration was more contentious, and accounted for most of the meeting's discussion. Will Toor of the Colorado Energy Office, a member of the RAQC, presented the proposal, which calls for further examination of the efficacy of reformulated gas to bring down ozone levels compared to its potential cost to consumers.

Reformulated gasoline causes fewer tailpipe emissions than traditional gasoline. Estimates of the cost vary, however, with some claiming it could be as low as a twenty-cent increase per gallon and others claiming it could be over fifty cents per gallon.

“While there is thirty-year-old language in the Clean Air Act that certainly implies that areas under a severe designation will be required to use reformulated gasoline, it really isn't clear that it makes sense from a cost-benefit perspective,” Toor said.

Polis's amendment asks the EPA to work with the state to examine those costs and benefits, especially in comparison to other strategies that could lower ozone, before formalizing the reformulated gas requirement.

“If the conclusion was that the air quality benefits are more significant and that, in fact, this would be a more cost-effective approach than other approaches, then I think the state will likely be in a position of saying, ‘Okay, this does make sense going forward,’” Toor continued. “We don't feel like we yet have the level of analysis to allow us to conclude that.”

During public comment, many speakers agreed that reformulated gasoline could be more trouble than it's worth. They included representatives from the oil and gas industry, Adam Burg of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, and residents who expressed concerns about the state of the economy and their budget, particularly regarding gas prices.

“We all care about air quality and love clean mountain air,” said Jacquelyn Buky, whose son and grandchild live with her because of the high cost of living and fuel. “We therefore fully understand the desire to ensure that our air is clean. If changes are needed, and if you must comply with EPA direction, they must be realistic and realistically developed for all people in Colorado.”

RAQC member Steven Arnold expressed concern that passing such an amendment on to the AQCC would make it seem like the RAQC approves of what it says and doubts the SIP draft that it created. He also questioned the precedent it would set, allowing other parties to question federally required control measures.

“It puts us in an awkward situation in the future, and I see no advantage to us sending such a message to the commission when the administration can go directly to the commission through the hearing process and make that argument and lay that out,” Arnold said. “It's just not something that has been well vetted to the board at this point.” The administration had sent the letter to the RAQC board the morning of the meeting.

Shoshana Lew, director of the Colorado Department of Transportation and an RAQC member, responded to Arnold's concerns, arguing that it is important for the amendment to be part of the SIP package in order to ensure that it’s considered properly.

The board passed the amendment with Arnold, Payer and Jeffrey Collett dissenting.

Out of the 21 members present, the only one to dissent with the overall SIP was Michael Leccese of the Urban Land Use Institute of Colorado.

“I voted no, with all due respect to RAQC staff and my colleagues on the council. This is a naïve, idealistic ‘Newby’ vote, I confess,” he wrote in the Zoom meeting chat. “I feel in my gut that we can and must do better — in agreement with some of the public comments we received today.”

Those who expressed a desire for stronger controls, and those concerned about reformulated gasoline, will all have more chances to weigh in when the AQCC formally takes up the plan, which it's slated to do at its September meeting. An AQCC hearing on the final SIP is expected in December; it will then be submitted to the EPA for review.