Polis Forces EPA’s Hand To Reclassify Colorado’s Ozone Status, EPA Obliges
The Environmental Protection Agency’s completed Gov. Jared Polis’ request to reclassify the state’s air quality as it downgraded Colorado’s ozone status from “moderate” to “serious” for Denver and other northern Colorado counties this week.
The agency finalized the non-attainment status Monday, following Polis’ decision earlier in the year to reverse the course set by his predecessor, former Gov. John Hickenlooper, in avoiding onerous ground-level ozone repercussions through an exemption waiver.
The new designation will trigger new penalties and additional regulations that businesses told Western Wire in April would impose a Federal “straightjacket” on operations and permitting in the state.
Denver is joined by Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Douglas, Jefferson, Larimer, and Weld counties in the new, more severe designation. Colorado has one year to reduce pollution by creating a new state implementation plan, and regulators must now issue permits for operations emitting more than 50 tons per year, reducing the threshold from 100 tons and expanding the number of permits issued.
Hickenlooper’s administration had pursued a waiver by arguing that EPA should consider and exclude out-of-state pollution, including from foreign countries, as part of Colorado’s designation for Front Range communities.
In March, Polis declined to continue that policy approach, instead ending the state’s request for an EPA extension to bring Denver and other Front Range communities into compliance with attainment goals at the 2015 ozone standard, or 70 parts per billion (ppb).
Over the summer, Polis said that the state shouldn’t be “sugar-coating” its environmental approach.
Undercutting the state’s collaborative approach between EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment upsets decades of cooperation and the state’s achievements in reducing emissions, even as it struggles with environmental and other conditions that are entirely outside its control, as state regulators admitted again last spring.
“Colorado is committed to moving aggressively to protect its citizens by reducing ground level ambient ozone levels. While a significant portion of the high ozone levels impacting Colorado residents result from global background and emissions from outside the state, that fact should not dissuade us from taking reasonable and cost-effective steps to reduce emissions from sources within Colorado,” Garry Kaufman, Division Director of the Air Pollution Control Division at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment told Western Wire earlier this year. “In connection with these efforts we will be looking at all significant sources of ozone precursor emissions in the state including oil and gas production and transportation,” he added.
Interstate transportation of pollution and Colorado’s geographic attributes—elevation and topography—make reaching attainment status more challenging. A 2015 National Aeronautics and Space Administration study by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology found that while the United States had removed a fifth of its ozone-producing emissions between 2005 and 2010, there was not a concomitant drop in the atmosphere due to “a combination of naturally occurring atmospheric processes and pollutants crossing the Pacific Ocean from China.”
These factors led Polis’ Democratic colleagues like Hickenlooper and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet to express deep concerns over the ozone levels present in the state. Hickenlooper repeatedly cited Colorado’s “unique challenges” in contending with ozone levels, which are naturally higher due to the Rocky Mountains trapping out-of-state pollution and wildfire emissions, Colorado’s overall high altitude, and naturally occurring events like in-state wildfires and lightning.
During the policy battle over a new standard in 2015, Hickenlooper’s top air quality regulator at CDPHE’s Air Pollution Control Division, Will Allison, said, “We’re starting out at a higher level [for ozone] than many parts of the country.”
“There are interstate and international issues and we don’t have the ability or obligation to address things that we can’t control, whether it’s Mother Nature or emissions from sources outside the state,” he added.
Allison estimated that between 30 and 50 percent of ozone monitored in the state came from background sources and varied because of weather, two factors “beyond our control.” His successor, Kaufman, estimated background ozone levels monitored around the state at 50 to 65 percent at times, levels that don’t “leave a lot of cushion that we can effect.”
“A good portion of the ozone we experience in the Denver Metro and north Front Range area is transported here from out of state or out of the country,” Kaufman said in 2017. “Sometimes it’s almost exclusively background [ozone],” he added.
According to officials then, the new standard would put Colorado in an even more difficult place. According to the EPA itself, which published a white paper in December 2015, Colorado and particularly the state’s Front Range counties, would be unable to hit the 70 ppb ozone level by 2025.
“Modeling predicts levels above 70 ppb in the Denver area,” the paper concluded.
Bennet also expressed doubts about the state reaching the new standard.
“Because of the pollution that’s come in from other Western states, from across the globe, from wildfires in the West, we have significant parts of our state that would be in non-attainment [unintelligible] from the very beginning of the law. That doesn’t make any sense. That’s not going to work,” he added.
By inviting EPA to impose more stringent regulations on the state, Polis dismissed a key point Bennet emphasized. “[T]he agency must make implementation of these rules workable in Colorado by considering ways to account for the sources of ozone that do not originate in the state,” Bennet said.
In April, Denver Environmental Quality Division Director Gregg Thomas applauded the city’s work over the last 30 years, pointing to weather-related causes, not anthropogenic sources, as the trigger for recent poor air quality days.
“Winter time has always been a high-pollution season in Denver,” Thomas said. He pointed to the city’s great strides in reducing emissions even as the population boomed in the last three decades.
“Our long-term trends of all these pollutants are down anywhere from 20 — in some cases 90 — percent,” Thomas said.