FRISCO, Colo. — Ready or not, the federal government may be about to look up your tailpipe.
Driven largely by emissions from fossil fuel processing, ozone violations along the Front Range spiked this past year and it’s unlikely that Colorado will meet a 2015 Environmental Protection Agency deadline to improve air quality. Missing the target means federal regulations will be ratcheted up, causing more hassle for drivers than for the oil and gas industry, which has been relatively left out of ozone considerations for decades. Colorado will see more widespread mandatory auto emissions testing along the Front Range. It’s up to the state, for now, to regulate the emissions coming from Front Range drilling.
Before 2012, only two Front Range monitoring stations registered ozone violations. But during the past year, 10 sites were in violation, including monitoring stations in Fort Collins, Greeley, Boulder, Golden, and even Rocky Mountain National Park, according to documents prepared for this week’s meeting of the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission.
The increase in ozone violations is primarily due to emissions from oil and gas drilling. Volatile organic compounds released from pipelines and storage facilities mix with other airborne chemicals, mainly nitrogen oxides. Then, the sun cooks them into a toxic brew that harms human health and the environment, including native plants in Rocky Mountain National Park, where scientists have long been documenting the impacts.
In 2012, park rangers hoisted 17 ozone warnings for potential impacts to human health, and even higher readings were registered at air quality monitors in other locations.
The nine-county Front Range region, including Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Denver, Douglas, Jefferson, and most of Larimer and Weld Counties, was declared to be in violation of federal limits on ground-level ozone in 2012, triggering a three-year deadline to clean up the air.
“We’re above the standards … we haven’t achieved compliance, It’s going to be some years of work,” said Garry Kaufman, deputy director of the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division, acknowledging that the region is probably not going to meet the EPA standards by the end of 2015.
“If we don’t meet them, we’ll bumped up to moderate category and we’ll have to submit a plan to showing how to get into compliance … There are certain minimal requirements, including tailpipe emissions testing, and some additional requirements, with some flexibility to choose,” Kaufman said.
Environmental watchdogs are urging the state to speed up steps to control ozone.
“There’s real urgency from an economic and health standpoint, and our economy and the environment are inextricably linked,” said Jeremy Nichols, with WildEarth Guardians. “If we don’t meet our cleanup deadlines, it will get painful. There seems to be this attitude that it’s OK to violate, to let things fester and get worse. That’s insane, In the end, it’ll be more expensive,” Nichols said.
Kaufman said the state has made progress in tackling ozone pollution in recent years, mainly by addressing power plant emissions. Some of those changes will pay off in the years ahead, he said, referring to the 2010 Colorado Clean Air, Clean Jobs Act, which will help reduce nitrogen-oxide emissions in the next few years as the law takes effect. Federal guidelines for auto emissions will also help as the fleet turns over in the next few years, Kaufman added.
Kaufman acknowledged that oil and gas production is the single biggest source of the volatile chemicals that are the precursors of ozone formation. A new set of proposed rules for the fossil fuel industry has already been vetted by key stakeholders, and preliminary modeling shows it should lead to a drop in ozone levels, he said.
Nichols said efforts to clean up ozone pollution have been hampered by Gov. John Hickenlooper.
“The APCD is trying to do some good work, but they’ve stymied by the governor … He wanted things to slow down a little bit, but he doesn’t understand how much he’s putting at risk in the Front Range,” Nichols said.
According to Kaufman, hearings for the proposed new rules are tentatively set for early in 2014, but proposals are being submitted now.
“It is getting better, but we have more work to do to come into compliance … We just keep plugging away,” he said.
[ Top image: Fracking hazy farmland in Loveland, Colorado, by John Tomasic. Bottom: A computer-generated split-screen image simulates the average 20 percent best (left) and 20 percent worst (right) visibility at the Long’s Peak vista based on an average of monitored data for years 2000-2004. ]