Mountain States

Colorado Governor Reverses Course On Ozone After Previously Calling Regulatory Hammer “Good News”

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) recently did a 180 on ozone, saying Colorado should have the same waiver as other states – the same waiver the governor rejected in 2019 when he broke from former Governor John Hickenlooper saying that the state couldn’t “sit back and rely on a waiver or other countries to get us there. We have to do everything in our power right here at home.” But Polis’ reversal is likely too late as he has set in motion a regulatory process he simply can’t walk back now.

The news of Polis’ change of course has been reported on by the Denver Business Journal and the Denver Gazette, and the rest of the story shows that Polis previously called such an EPA downgrade to be “good news” in an interview with CPR:

Warner: “The state issued 65 health alerts last summer in this region, the worst year in more than a decade. Beyond what the EPA is likely to mandate — cleaner burning gas on the Front Range and tougher permitting for businesses — what steps is your administration taking to tackle smog?”

Polis: “The EPA downgrade is good news. What it does for the state is it gives the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment the ability to oversee about 300 more sites; about 200 of those are oil and gas, 100 are other emission sites.”

Warner: “So, they will face stricter permitting.”

Polis: “They will have to do applications to reduce their emissions from about 300 additional sites. We are ready to work with them [the EPA] on the emission reductions that otherwise wouldn’t have occurred without a downgrade.” (emphasis added)

One of the requirements of such a designation is that drivers must purchase more expensive gasoline – a move that adds extra burdens on families already paying higher than usual energy prices this year. As the Denver Post recently reported:

“The Environmental Protection Agency announced Friday that it had reclassified Denver and Colorado’s northern Front Range as “severe” violators of federal air quality standards, meaning residents are likely to pay higher gas prices and the number of businesses required to apply for air pollution permits will more than double.

“The severe label requires motorists in summer months to use a special blend of gasoline that reduces harmful greenhouse gas emissions, and drivers in the nine-county northern Front Range will begin using it in the summer of 2024 unless the state convinces the EPA to grant an exception. AAA estimates gas prices will increase 20 cents to 30 cents per gallon once drivers start using it.” (emphasis added)

In a letter earlier this month to EPA Administrator Michael Regan, Polis pushed back against the agency’s designation:

“While coastal states can frequently rely on the 179(B) waiver, which should also apply to Colorado, and other states do not have our unique geographic characteristics, we are left with fewer strong precedents to pursue in truly accounting for our challenges and the opportunities to correct them.

The 179(B) waiver allows a state or specific region to avoid “severe” ozone non-attainment status because of extraneous factors that often lie beyond local control as Polis mentioned in his letter to support his newly established position:

“Ozone is a uniquely challenging pollutant for the Denver-metro front range region because of its association with and development from more than simply direct pollution sources, namely geographic features, out-of-state and international pollution, and variables like increasingly hot temperatures due to climate change and increased wildfire smoke that are prominent amongst the Denver-metro area.” (emphasis added)

Notably, Polis cited the region’s unique geography and background sources of pollution – like those from China – as key reason’s the waiver should be granted. Not only has EID noted this fact repeatedly in recent years, but so has Colorado’s former top environmental regulator John Putnam who said:

“And yet from a control perspective, just based on what blows into the state and natural background in this environment, I’m not sure how we do that. Practically, what are the consequences for doing that?”

Putnam also told state Rep. Rod Pelton:

“We do factor in neighboring states and even some other countries when we do our planning. So for example, the worst days of ozone here on the Denver Front Range, the majority of those emissions come from outside of the state and it’s one of the reasons we support efforts by our neighboring states, efforts on a federal level to reduce pollution through the United States so it reduces what we have to do here in the state to meet our standards.” (emphasis added)

Polis’ Long History of Supporting Non-Attainment Status

Before this recent reversal, Polis had a long history of encouraging the EPA to place the Denver Metro Area in “severe” ozone non-attainment status.

In March 2019, shortly after taking office, Polis withdrew an extension before the EPA giving the state more time to continue making progress on reducing ozone, and encouraging a downgrade from the agency:

“There’s too much smog in our air, and instead of hiding behind bureaucracy and paperwork that delay action, we are moving forward to make our air cleaner now.”

This was a major break from his predecessor, fellow Democrat John Hickenlooper, who worked with the agency to make significant progress on the issue.

Later that year, Putnam said:

“The data is what it is. It shows we didn’t attain the air quality standard. We need to move into the ‘serious’ category. We’ve been planning around that. It is good for affected parties and residents of the Denver metro area to know this is our status.”

Industry Makes Huge Strides

Research has shown that the biggest ozone contributor – pollution from China and naturally-occurring sources – is beyond Colorado’s control, as NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has stated:

“A new study finds that the western United States reduced its production of ozone-forming pollutants by a whopping 21 percent between 2005 and 2010, but ozone in the atmosphere above the region did not drop as expected in response. The reason: a combination of naturally occurring atmospheric processes and pollutants crossing the Pacific Ocean from China. … Chinese emissions of ozone-forming pollutants increased 21 percent during these years.” (emphasis added)

Despite these challenges, Colorado’s oil and natural gas industry has made huge strides on reducing its emissions of ozone-forming pollutants, as the Colorado Oil & Gas Association points out:

“Since 2011, the state’s oil and gas industry nearly halved its emissions of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) in the Denver Metro/North Front Range (DMNFR) ozone nonattainment area, while oil production quadrupled statewide.”

Bottom Line: Ever since Gov. Polis came into office in 2019, he has been encouraging the EPA to place the Denver Metro Area in “severe” ozone non-attainment status, even calling EPA’s decision to finally do so “good news.”

But now that the reality of the situation has started to come to light, Gov. Polis has reversed course, citing many of the factors – like pollution from China – that he previously rejected, as Colorado drivers are preparing to pay more for gasoline, which is too bad as Polis didn’t reverse course when it would have actually mattered.

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