Mountain States

Polis’s (And China’s) Christmas Gift to Coloradans: Ozone Non-Attainment

Colorado is set to get a big Christmas gift after Governor Jared Polish finally got his wish this week by successfully lobbying the Environmental Protection Agency to classify the state as a “serious” ozone pollution violator in a move aimed squarely at the oil and natural gas industry.

It’s a sharp reversal from the position from past Democratic state leaders that understood most of the state’s ozone problem originates outside of its borders (mostly from China), and Polis explicitly asked Trump’s EPA to heavily punish Colorado.

Since assuming office in January, Polis has been actively pushing the EPA to downgrade Colorado’s status because it enables him to enact a stricter regulatory agenda that will put even more burdens on the oil and natural gas industry – even though the sector only makes up a small fraction of the problem.

The Denver Post reported on the strategy in May:

“If the EPA deems Colorado a ‘serious’ air-quality violator following the state’s May submission, it will trigger the updating of about 600 air pollution permits that the state health department’s air pollution regulators have issued to energy companies in Colorado. Reworked air pollution permits are apt to get stricter under the governor’s act-now plan.

Another Denver Post reporter, Bruce Finley, has firmly placed the ozone problem on oil and natural gas operators. In a September article, Finley falsely stated:

“In an all-day hearing, a panel of three agency experts heard from Weld County commissioners and representatives of the oil and gas industry — the main source of volatile organic chemicals pollution that leads to the formation of ozone — who urged delay.” (emphasis added)

And his article on Monday, Finley gave a voice to activists who similarly want to pin the blame on oil and gas.

“‘The air in beautiful Colorado has been unsafe to breathe for far too long,’ Center For Biological Diversity attorney Robert Ukeiley said, urging better control over oil and gas industry operations as an important next step.

But in the rush to fault oil and natural gas, activists and media are missing the bigger picture: the industry isn’t the primary source of the ozone problem. The biggest contributor to Colorado ozone is actually China.

A 2015 study demonstrating a 21 percent drop in pollutants contributing to ozone in the western United States between 2005 and 2010 also showed that much of that gain was offset by what the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory called “a combination of naturally occurring atmospheric processes and pollutants crossing the Pacific Ocean from China.”

A former top official for 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.”

It’s why it’s so important that Colorado accounts for background ozone, otherwise the state would never be in attainment. Yet, Polis has chosen to ignore those crucial facts:

“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.”

Despite the best efforts of industry opponents to convince the public otherwise, the oil and natural gas sector on the other hand makes up a much small percentage of the problem on Colorado’s Front Range, according to NOAA:

“They found that on average, oil and gas emissions account for about 17 percent of the daily infusion of VOCs that create ground-level ozone.”

Researchers at the University of Colorado agree:

“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)

As the Colorado Oil & Gas Association points out, the industry has made great progress in reducing the emissions that lead to ozone even while greatly boosting production:

“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.”


The oil and natural gas sector gets much of the blame from politicians and the media as being the main source of ozone pollution in Colorado. But those accusations just don’t add up with reality. Background ozone, especially from Asia, and other naturally-occurring sources are the main culprits.

Furthermore, the industry continues to make progress to reduce it’s share of the ozone solution thanks to improving technology and the move by Governor Polis and the EPA to push the state into serious non-attainment only distracts from the real problems.

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