Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) is touting his decision to let the Environmental Protection Agency downgrade the state’s ozone attainment level, calling it “good news” that a wave of new regulations will have economic consequences, including in the state’s oil and natural gas sector.
Recently, EPA “downgraded Colorado’s North Front Range ozone problem to ‘severe’ from ‘serious,’” as the Colorado Sun reported. Recall in 2019, shortly after taking office, Polis withdrew a requested extension with EPA to keep the state in attainment because of pollution from China and withdrew a separate extension to give the state more time to achieve compliance.
Gov. Polis, who unlike his predecessor – Sen. John Hickenlooper (D) who worked with EPA when he was governor to find the right balance between economic growth and environmental protection – made the comments praising the move in his regular interview with Ryan Warner of CPR:
Warner: “The state issued 65 health alerts last summer in this region, the worst year in more than a decade. Beyond what the EPA is likely to mandate — cleaner burning gas on the Front Range and tougher permitting for businesses — what steps is your administration taking to tackle smog?”
Polis: “The EPA downgrade is good news. What it does for the state is it gives the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment the ability to oversee about 300 more sites; about 200 of those are oil and gas, 100 are other emission sites.”
Warner: “So, they will face stricter permitting.”
Polis: “They will have to do applications to reduce their emissions from about 300 additional sites. We are ready to work with them [the EPA] on the emission reductions that otherwise wouldn’t have occurred without a downgrade.” (emphasis added)
Background Sources Biggest Contributor to Colorado Ozone Pollution
Energy In Depth has extensively covered ozone issues in Colorado and Utah and repeatedly noted that the biggest contributors to both states’ ozone levels is not local economic activity, but rather naturally occurring and background sources.
In fact, this move ignores the massive progress made on ozone in the United States and instead will punish Colorado’s economy while letting China off the hook. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory stated:
“A new study finds that the western United States reduced its production of ozone-forming pollutants by a whopping 21 percent between 2005 and 2010, but ozone in the atmosphere above the region did not drop as expected in response. The reason: a combination of naturally occurring atmospheric processes and pollutants crossing the Pacific Ocean from China.
“… Chinese emissions of ozone-forming pollutants increased 21 percent during these years.”
It’s problem that even top officials in Polis’ own administration have conceded too, including John Putnam, former Director of Environmental Programs at the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment. In 2020, Putnam was overheard saying:
“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?”
Reporting on the latest news, Axios wrote that “more than half its (Colorado’s) pollution came from beyond state lines,” and the EPA is requiring California, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming to reduce its own pollution that drifts into Colorado.
Oil and Natural Gas Sector Makes Big Strides Forward
Further research shows that Colorado’s oil and natural gas industry – operating under the toughest rules in the country – has made tremendous progress on reducing ozone-causing pollutants and contribute very little to the problem. Researchers at the University of Colorado write:
“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 gas industry’s 280 tons per day of VOCs in 2011 did decrease, however, to 154 tons per day in 2017.”
Departure from Hickenlooper Approach
Polis’ decision not to seek the EPA waiver and rejoice over the “severe” designation is a notable departure from Hickenlooper, who worked with EPA and industry to address the problem – a strategy that worked as his administration said in 2018:
“‘We expected this new designation,’ said Jacque Montgomery, press secretary for Gov. John Hickenlooper. ‘Air quality is improving, and cars, trucks and industry are getting cleaner, yet a growing economy and growing population bring new sources of emissions to the state.’
“State officials are ‘using a combination of rules and non-regulatory measures to cut ozone,’ she said.”
Like, Hickenlooper’s colleague in Washington now, Sen. Michael Bennet (D), also warned that policymakers should consider background sources:
“And this is the perfect example of applying the law and doing it in a way that doesn’t make sense on the ground. 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.”
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