Last week, Gov. Jared Polis announced he was rescinding a request to the Environmental Protection Agency that would have given the state more time to come into compliance with ozone limits, a federally regulated pollutant that can affect the respiratory system.
Ozone levels around the metro area have long been over EPA’s accepted limits. The agency first raised a red flag in 2004, then the region was officially designated as a “nonattainment” area in 2008 and again in 2012. Since then, levels have not improved, which means the EPA is downgrading our status to “serious nonattainment.”
As a result, oil and gas operations in the region that have not previously been deemed “major sources” will soon receive that designation, which comes with new hoops to jump through and higher fees.
Here’s how it works: Right now, any operation that emits more than 100 tons of ozone or ozone precursors each year are designated as “major sources” and have to file for a Title V operating permit, which was created under the Clean Air Act. When the Front Range slips into “serious nonattainment” in July, the threshold for requiring Title V permit will drop to 50 tons per year.
Garry Kaufman, director of Colorado’s Air Pollution Control Division, told Denverite that local Title V permit holders currently represent all kinds of industries, from power generation to breweries. The Coors plant in Golden, for instance, is one of them. But the breakdown is less diverse when it comes to businesses that emit between 50 and 100 tons per year.
“They’re mostly oil and gas,” he said.
Some of those companies might find ways to lower their emissions, while others will be subject to the new regulation and be required to offset their releases.
The governor’s announcement came days before the Colorado Senate passed a controversial bill meant to give municipalities more control over where oil and gas development can take place inside their borders.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association said the “industry is a committed stakeholder” in lowering emissions across the state.
Jill Ryan, Polis’ pick to lead the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said the move gets at the second of three goals in the governor’s push to improve air quality, which began with his first executive order to increase access to electric vehicles. The third piece is the governor’s directive to move the state’s energy production to 100 percent renewable sources, which takes care of emissions from power plants that will need to output more energy as more electric vehicles hit the road.
Cars, industry and power generation all contribute to ozone pollution, and one of the reasons Colorado has had such a hard time tackling the issue is the sheer number of sources. Kauffman said lawnmowers even contribute a significant amount.
Another reason is that air doesn’t pay much respect to borders. Kaufman said his agency estimated about 75 percent of ozone measured in the state comes from other parts of the country and across oceans.
Grier Bailey, executive director of the Colorado Wyoming Petroleum Marketers Association, said this amounts to pinning responsibility on parties that don’t deserve it. He’s also concerned that products made with Colorado oil and gas will become “much, much, much more expensive.”
While he said “environmental concerns are important,” the economic impact from Polis’ decision does not sit well with his industry.
Joel Minor, a Denver-based attorney with Earthjustice, said all of the governor’s initiatives send the region in the right direction. Even though the government can’t deal with pollution sources across borders, allowing the state to downgrade into serious nonattainment helps chip away at the problem.
“It is something within our control,” he said. “If we want our air to be healthy to breathe, we can address that.”
With all this focus on oil and gas, he added that metro area residents should also not forget that vehicles are part of this equation.
There are “two clear causes,” he said, “and you have to address both.”
Polis’ announcement also came just before Denver Mayor Michael Hancock announced the city would create a new transportation department. While the new body would tackle all kinds of issues, Hancock said one goal was to reduce single-occupancy vehicles by providing better transit options.
Since Denver is home to the highest concentration of cars in the state, reaching that goal could go a long way to handling the city’s ozone output. Hancock said he hasn’t spoken with Polis directly about his statewide air quality push, though he added he expects to hear from the governor at some point.
Bailey said the state could also be required to sell cleaner-burning fuel at gas pumps as a result of the EPA’s new classification. That would help keep cars from emitting as much ozone, but the new gas would require special production which, again, means a higher cost for consumers.