Mountain States

Denver Post Story on Air Quality Cites Flawed Research, Ignores Out-of-State Pollution Sources

Bruce Finley, an environment reporter with the Denver Post, has struck again with another story on the air quality in Colorado that fails to tell the whole story and relies on debunked research.

Finley has written multiple stories on air quality and ozone the past several years and his track record leaves a lot to be desired.

This time, Finley reports on a study by the activist group Environment Colorado that says Denver is among the top 10 cities in the country for poor air quality and that Colorado Springs, Greeley, and Fort Collins have similar issues. While Finley describes Environment Colorado as an “advocacy group,” he fails to tell readers the group’s stated goal is to ban fracking and it has a history of manipulating data and telling outright lies to the public.

Nor does Finley highlight the fact that most ozone in Colorado comes from neighboring states and foreign countries – something that a top state environment regulator acknowledged recently – which makes decreasing the state’s ozone extremely difficult.

Flawed Research and Falsehoods

Finley’s entire article is based around a study recently released by Environment Colorado – the state chapter of Environment America – whose goal is ban fracking, according to its website:

“We’re working to ban fracking wherever we can—from New York to North Carolina to California.”

Treating this group as an unbiased source of information simply isn’t credible, and Environment America has proven its lack of legitimacy and honesty several times.

A 2013 doozy of a report from the group was littered with inaccuracies and stats that lacked context. EA faulted fracking for increased air pollution and carbon emissions when the truth is that clean-burning natural gas has dramatically reduced both. The report also said fracking has led to more than 1,000 cases of groundwater contamination – an entirely incorrect claim that has been rejected by three top Obama Administration officials, and various federal agencies, state regulators, and academics.

In Colorado, the group claimed that severe flooding damaged oil and natural gas sites and the runoff then contaminated the drinking water that comes from the South Platte River that most of the metro area relies on. But the state’s public health and environment department said it is reassuring the sampling shows no evidence of oil and gas pollutants.”

Denver Water also rejected Environment Colorado’s bogus accusations:

“The majority of Denver’s water comes from rivers and streams fed by mountain snowmelt in the headwaters of the South Platte and the Colorado River. Our customers have not experienced any water service or quality issues as a result of the flooding or oil spills, which have been downstream of our collection system and service area.”

In other words, the group thinks the river flows against gravity towards the mountains, not away from them.

To perpetrate fearmongering around production in the Marcellus Shale, the Pennsylvania chapter even stooped as low as posting a picture on social media of a flooded rig in Pakistan when the state experienced historic flooding caused by Hurricane Lee.

But most pertinent to the Denver Post article is the group’s use of completely skewed air quality data.

In 2018, Environment America released “Trouble in the Air” that attempted to portray that vast stretches of the country was experiencing “elevated” ground level ozone and PM2.5 pollution.

But as Energy In Depth explained, the reality is that the majority of the areas that Environment America cited were actually in attainment of EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards. The group was including areas with “moderate” pollution as part of their “elevated” list, even though those areas where still in attainment.

If those areas were truly “elevated,” then the EPA would classify them as non-attainment and classify them as “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups.” Environment America manipulated EPA data to make it appear as if vast chunks of the United States are heavily polluted and further its argument that fracking should be banned.

Ignoring Background Ozone

Finley then writes that the EPA has recently reclassified Colorado as a “serious” violator of ozone pollution, but he never mentions this only happened because Gov. Jared Polis withdrew the state’s consideration of a waiver.

It’s certainly not the first time Finley left out crucial information while reporting on ozone.

Colorado’s unique topography makes dealing with ozone especially difficult and it’s the reason that past governors and other stakeholders have worked with the EPA to create tailored plans to deal with ozone – a years-long process that’s proven successful.

By rejecting the waiver, Polis will be able to place a stricter permitting process on industrials, including the oil and natural gas sector. In announcing his move, Polis said he no longer wants to consider background ozone – most notably from China – when addressing air pollution:

“We can’t use pollution from China as an excuse not to improve our air quality here in Colorado. We must act with a sense of urgency to reduce smog. That means we can’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.”

Yet what Polis’ strategy completely ignores, and Finley fails to report is that background ozone is by far the biggest contributing factor. A top official for former Governor John Hickenlooper, Polis’ predecessor, even acknowledged in 2016 that, “30 to 50 percent of the ozone that we’re monitoring is background and beyond our control,” while Colorado’s Democratic U.S. Senator Michael Bennet has also warned about background ozone.

Even John Putnam, the top environment official at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, acknowledged it’ll be nearly impossible for achieve attainment while dealing with background ozone.

Putnam was caught on a hot mic stating the state’s strategy was flawed:

“It’s one of those things where on one hand I see some type of evidence on health effects that obviously set the standards.

“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?”

He also told the Colorado General Assembly that the worst pollution days are because of background ozone:

“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.”

But Finley says absolutely nothing about background leaving readers to believe the state’s problems are of its own making. Instead, he places the blame on the oil and natural gas industry despite the fact that the sector makes up only a small portion of ozone contributions, as a University of Colorado review of a NOAA study says:

“Summertime ozone pollution levels in the northern Front Range periodically spike above 70 parts per billion (ppb), which is considered unhealthy—on average, 17 ppb of that ozone is produced locally. The new research, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, shows that oil and gas emissions contribute an average of 3 ppb of the locally produced ozone daily, and potentially more than that on high-ozone days.” (emphasis added)

Denver Air Quality Has Greatly Improved

Through all this fearmongering from Environment Colorado, Finley never tells readers that Denver’s air quality used to be much worse.

A 2016 Denver Post column rejected the skewed numbers in an American Lung Association report that claimed pollution was increasing:

“‘I very much disagree with the contention that air quality is as bad or worse than in the 1970s. It’s very much better,’ said Will Allison, director of the state’s Air Pollution Control Division.

“…But ozone is not as bad as it was in the 1970s, either, especially measured by its one-hour peaks. As Gordon Pierce of CDPHE’s air division told me, ‘If you look at the one-hour data and go back to the 1970s, the one-hour data has certainly gone down significantly.’”

Nor is the infamous “Brown Cloud” near as bad as it used to be. Fox 31 reports:

“Denver air pollution needs to be put into perspective. In the early 1990s — when far fewer people were living in the Denver area — air quality was a lot worse. Now, it’s better, thanks to cleaner emissions technology.

“‘Our long-term trends of all these pollutants are down anywhere from 20 — in some cases 90 — percent,’ said Gregg Thomas, director of Denver’s Environmental Quality Division.”


Bruce Finley’s reporting for the Denver Post on air quality and ozone has been problematic for years and the latest story is another example. He cites activist groups with a history of lying to the public and fails to add crucial context.

While Colorado has a long way to go, it has made tremendous progress in fighting pollution over the past 50 years, including significant contributions from the oil and natural gas sector.

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