Mountain States

Top Colorado Environmental Official Admits State’s Ozone Strategy Is Flawed

Ever since assuming office in 2019, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has made shifting the state’s strategy on ozone pollution a top priority. This includes a successful effort to have the state classified as a “serious” ozone pollution violator, ignoring the fact that most of the state’s ozone is generated outside of its borders – a move one of the governor’s top officials now says makes it nearly impossible for Colorado to achieve the Environmental Protection Agency’s ozone attainment standard.

Previous Administrations Acknowledged the Background Ozone Problem

Energy In Depth has extensively covered ozone issues in Colorado. Under past administrations, Democrats, Republicans, and various stakeholders all worked together to address the unique challenges posed by ozone pollution in Colorado. Because of background sources and the state’s unique environment, Colorado often deals with higher ozone levels than most other places in the country. It’s why the state has previously discussed receiving a waiver from the EPA and the agency has allowed additional flexibility and extensions to deal with the issue. These efforts have produced positive results.

The current federal threshold is 70 parts per billion, but Colorado often exceeds that. In fact, most experts agree that natural causes often put the state in the 50 to 60 ppb range, leaving little buffer before the threshold, which makes dealing with background ozone especially challenging.

But Polis has sought to take an entirely different approach by withdrawing the state from consideration to receive a waiver from the EPA which would put Colorado into serious non-attainment and allow his administration to place additional permitting requirements on industry.

Polis has specifically criticized the past use of waivers for highlighting background ozone – the pollution that comes into the state from neighboring states and foreign countries, most notably China – saying:

“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.”

Top Official Confirms This Is a Losing Strategy For Colorado

Until recently, top officials in Polis’s administration haven’t spoken for or against his efforts on this front. But now, John Putnam, who serves as the environmental director at the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, acknowledged it is nearly impossible to achieve the EPA’s attainment standard while dealing with the background ozone that Colorado has no control over.

At a meeting in Boulder County last week, Putnam was caught on a hot mic in a conversation where he acknowledged the state’s strategy is 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?”

Putnam’s comments completely contradict the entire Polis Administration strategy and show that the governor isn’t exactly being honest with Coloradans when he says attainment can be achieved even while dealing with natural causes and background ozone.

Putnam again made this point this week as the CDPHE testified before the Colorado General Assembly. When Rep. Rod Pelton asked if the pollution from neighboring states is part of the agency’s calculations, Putnam said:

“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.”

Translation:  While Polis’s efforts can’t actually achieve attainment, they can be used to further squeeze the oil and natural gas sector, along with other industries, with unnecessary tighter regulations.

Now that Putnam has come forward and acknowledged how misleading the administration’s dismal of background ozone is, one can only hope the governor and the rest of his administration will follow suit.

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