Environment

Environmental Groups to Air Quality Control Commission: Ozone Plan Misses the Mark

Denver has been playing catch-up with federal air-quality standards for ozone for most of the past few decades.
Denver has been playing catch-up with federal air-quality standards for ozone for most of the past few decades. CDPHE
After a four-day rulemaking process, the Air Quality Control Commission approved a new State Implementation Plan to reduce Colorado's ozone pollution. The plan had been prompted by an April decision by the Environmental Protection Agency to downgrade the status of the northern Front Range from a serious violator of federal ozone standards to a severe violator. The reason? The area failed to bring ozone levels below the EPA’s 75 parts per billion National Ambient Air Quality Standard, which the agency established in 2008.

Environmental groups and local governments have long contended that the plan, which the Regional Air Quality Council voted to send to the AQCC in August, needed to include more measures to get ozone pollution under control, such as increasing access to public transportation, limiting high-emitting oil and gas activities during ozone season, and adding emissions standards for lawn and garden equipment. The AQCC approved the plan without those additions on December 16.

“The bottom line is the state is failing to make a plan that will actually meet air quality standards,” says Kirsten Schatz, a clean air advocate with the Colorado Public Interest Research Group. “It's a big missed opportunity. The plan just totally misses the mark. It's not going to get the job done. It's not going to cut harmful ozone pollution.”

Ozone is a secondary pollutant that forms when other pollutants — primarily volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxide — mix with heat and sun. It can aggravate lung conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases; it’s also particularly dangerous for young children and adults over 65. Denver ranks seventh on the American Lung Association's list of most polluted cities for ozone in 2022.

The northern Front Range also does not comply with the EPA’s new standard of 70 parts per billion, adopted in 2015, for which the AQCC passed a similar plan on December 16.

“This is a serious serious public-health problem, and we need serious solutions,” Schatz says. “It's been a little frustrating to feel like the actions taken so far, they're just not up to the task of the problem at hand.”

New solutions may be considered in 2023 thanks to language adopted by the AQCC as part of the plan's expectations that regional and state officials will evaluate strategies to reduce ozone in precursor sectors like oil and gas, transportation and others. That language is non-binding, however, so although environmental advocates are glad for the acknowledgment, it doesn’t assuage their concerns.

“This is where they should have been years ago,” notes Jacob Smith, executive director of Colorado Communities for Climate Action, a coalition of 40 local governments advocating for stronger climate policy. “It's disappointing that they adopted a plan that they know will fail and that they know is inadequate, and didn't adopt any additional steps that they could have that would make a real difference now.”

The plan not only states that it won’t reach compliance with the 2015 standard by the 2024 deadline, but also that the ozone problem was worse than originally thought when the RAQC sent the plan to the AQCC.

According to a November 11 temporary notice of withdrawal submitted by the Air Pollution Control Division to the AQCC, emissions inventories that account for volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides were calculated incorrectly for the oil and gas industry in the non-attainment area, which accounted only for new drilling in 2017 rather than total operative oil wells. The discrepancy was discovered by a coalition of local governments, including Colorado Communities for Climate Action.

“All of our residents, including myself, miss days of work, or children miss school days, and we’re increasing the burden on our healthcare system,” JJ Trout, Golden city councilor and mayor pro tem, said during public comment. “My residents expect us to do the hard work to protect our communities and their health. To adopt a plan that everyone agrees with will not meet our goals, it's just irresponsible.”

Trout added that, although she is sympathetic to concerns expressed by those in the oil and gas industry about the economic impact of ozone controls, the extent of ozone pollution is too high to ignore.

Local officials like Trout, Smith notes, have been more motivated to fix the ozone problem because of their connection to communities experiencing the health impacts of bad air. The political cost of angering industry groups that prevents bold action at the state level isn’t as impactful to them as stories they hear from their constituents.

Yet the AQCC did attempt bold action when it came to skirting the Clean Air Act, approving the plan without a requirement to switch to reformulated gasoline by 2024, thanks to 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.

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 20-cent increase per gallon, and others claiming it could be over 50 cents per gallon. The Polis administration called for further examination of the efficacy of reformulated gas to bring down ozone levels compared to its potential cost to consumers before including it in the plan.

“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,” Will Toor of the Colorado Energy Office said at an August RAQC meeting.

The EPA will now review the plan, and the RAQC will hold a stakeholder process in 2023 to gain input on further iterations of the state’s ozone plans. But some advocates are hoping Coloradans won’t have to wait for more action, calling for the legislature and other state leaders to act quickly to implement ozone control measures.

“We have so many ways that we know of on the table to cut ozone pollution,” Schatz says.

Smith gives the example of pausing high-emitting, pre-production activity for drilling during ozone season in the summer as something the legislature could do to significantly reduce ozone.

“The state has mostly said, ‘Yeah, we know it's a problem. We're going to try and do stuff.’ But then when it comes time to actually adopt the things that are going to make the biggest difference, they only go halfway,” he says. “The result is we're still in crisis. In fact, the crisis is worse. So it's time for the state to really step up and treat it like the crisis it is and take those real health harms to people all over the Front Range as seriously as they deserve.”
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Catie Cheshire is a staff writer at Westword. After getting her undergraduate degree at Regis University, she went to Arizona State University for a master's degree. She missed everything about Denver -- from the less-intense sun to the food, the scenery and even the bus system. Now she's reunited with Denver and writing news for Westword.
Contact: Catie Cheshire

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