Gov. Jared Polis pitches budget that aims to tackle emissions with more state inspectors

In recent years, the Air Pollution Control Division's budget has barely budged even as oil and gas production more than tripled

Gov. Jared Polis visits Greenlee Elementary School on March 22, 2019. His FY 20-21 budget includes money for air quality regulators. (Photo by John Herrick)

Gov. Jared Polis wants to increase the number of state oil and gas inspectors to ensure companies drilling in Colorado comply with the state’s air quality laws. 

Hiring more inspectors is part of a $32.4 billion state budget Polis and his administration proposed Friday for the next fiscal year beginning in July. 

In addition to those hires, the budget prioritizes expanding access to preschool classes, building campgrounds at state parks, and offering an eight-week paid family leave program for state employees. Lawmakers will decide whether to approve any of the requests during the next legislative session, which begins Jan. 8. 

The administration’s request would increase the Air Pollution Control Division’s approximate $24 million budget by $2.4 million. That money would add 19 new employees to the agency, including 10 new inspectors to ensure companies don’t emit more pollution than allowed under their state permits issued by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. 

In 2014, Colorado adopted rules limiting emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from oil and gas wells. Oil and gas production has more than tripled since then, while the agency’s budget has increased by only about 3%. 

“They are in a hole in many respects. And we’ll see if this is enough to get them out,” said Jeremy Nichols, the climate and energy program director with WildEarth Guardians, an environmental advocacy group. 

Polis said his request would be a win for public health.  

“The (APCD) needs this to make sure we can produce health benefits for Colorado residents,” the governor told reporters during a news conference Friday. 

The northern Front Range region has failed federal ground-level ozone standards since 2004. Ground-level ozone, which is formed when sunlight mixes with oil and gas and vehicle tailpipe emissions, can increase a person’s risk of heart attack and asthma.  

If lawmakers approve Polis’s plan for more employees in the division, the staff could also help the state prepare for a possible wave of new regulatory work stemming from an expected move by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designating Colorado’s northern Front Range as out of attainment, or in “serious” violation of federal standards for ground-level ozone, also known as smog. In the event of such a non-attainment designation, more companies in the region – including oil and gas companies – may need so-called “major source” pollution permits, which would require state inspectors to monitor for compliance. 

Dan Haley, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said the industry trade group wants to learn more about the request.

“Sometimes securing additional programmatic funding is the right course of action. At other times it’s not useful. Good government does not necessarily mean more government, so the details matter,” Haley said in a statement.

To reduce transportation emissions, Polis is asking lawmakers to approve $1.4 million to begin replacing 740 gas-fueled vehicles owned by the state with up to 325 alternative fuel vehicles, including those powered by electricity. 

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