Colorado’s goal to rein in ozone misses federal deadline by two years

The state has been out of compliance with standards for ground-level ozone, a toxic gas found in smog, for more than a decade

Photo of smoggy downtown Denver skyline via the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Air Pollution Control Division, Technical Services Program, Wednesday, March 6, 2019.
Photo of smoggy downtown Denver skyline via the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Air Pollution Control Division, Technical Services Program, Wednesday, March 6, 2019. The EPA downgraded the region to a "serious" violator of the Clean Air Act on Dec. 16, 2019. The state says it could take until 2023 to come into compliance.

Colorado health officials have set a goal to reduce toxic ground-level ozone along the Front Range by 2023 — roughly two years beyond a federal mandate. 

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment told state lawmakers on Tuesday that it may take that long to come into compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2008 standard for ground-level ozone. Missing the EPA’s deadline of July 2021 could prolong the state’s air quality woes and prompt further federal intervention in its cleanup efforts.  

John Putnam, the director of the Department of Public Health and Environment’s environmental programs, said the agency could still meet the deadline, but that it will be a challenge. 

Recently passed regulations on vehicle and oil and gas emissions, both of which contribute to ground-level ozone, will take time to have an effect, Putnam said. Also, the EPA determines whether the state is meeting the deadline based on a rolling three-year average, which could include 2018, a year when fires scorched Colorado’s western slope and made the regions poor air quality worse. 

“We’re moving as quickly and as aggressively as we can,” Putnam told The Colorado Independent. “But we have more work to do.”

Environmentalists said they are disappointed the state is setting a goal that would miss the federal clean-up deadline. Jeremy Nichols, the climate and energy program director for the environmental advocacy group WildEarth Guardians, has been calling for the state to stop issuing air pollution permits for oil and gas drilling, which emits ozone-forming volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.

“It’s going to take some serious regulatory action. I thought this governor was behind that,” Nichols said. “This should be all-hands-on-deck.” 

The nine-county region, stretching from Douglas County to the southern half of Weld County, has failed federal standards for ozone since 2004. The invisible gas, which is formed when emissions from automobile tailpipes and oil and gas operations mix with sunlight, is linked to respiratory ailments and an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. 

Citing the region’s poor air quality, Gov. Jared Polis said shortly after taking office in early 2019 that there would be no “hiding behind bureaucracy and paperwork that delay action” and he withdrew the previous administration’s request for an extra year to come into compliance with the federal ozone standard. The EPA in December then downgraded the region’s non-compliance with the Clean Air Act from “moderate” to “serious.” In a statement at the time, Jill Hunsaker Ryan, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said, “The department is on it.” 

The EPA order required the state to reduce ozone levels to below 75 parts per billion by July 20, 2021. 

That level is higher than the current federal ozone standard of 70 parts per billion. The World Health Organization recommends an ozone concentration limit of about 50 parts per billion. The American Lung Association gave several counties in the Front Range region an “F” grade for poor air quality.

Last summer, average ozone levels that the EPA considers when determining compliance reached 78 parts per billion. The EPA uses a three-year average of the fourth-highest, eight-hour reading to calculate compliance. In all of 2019, the Front Range exceeded the 2008 ozone standard on seven days, down from 23 days in 2018, which was a record wildfire year in Colorado. 

The downgrade from “serious” to “moderate,” which takes effect next week on Jan. 27, means polluters that emit 50 tons of VOCs or nitrogen oxides per year will have to comply with more stringent air pollution permit requirements. This is a reduction from the current 100 tons per year threshold, which means it will apply to more companies. As many as 584 oil and gas facilities could fall within the new threshold, according to the Air Pollution Control Division. These companies seeking new permits would have to offset any new emissions they create from existing sites they operate, which could include shutting down older drilling sites. 

If the state fails the 2021 compliance deadline, the EPA could designate the region as a “severe” violator of the Clean Air Act. That would drop the permitting threshold to 25 tons per year. 

In August, the Air Quality Control Commission adopted a requirement that by 2023, at least 5% of automobiles sold in Colorado be zero-emission vehicles. And in December, following the passage of Senate Bill 181, which requires state air quality regulators to reduce emissions from oil and gas operations, the commission adopted new rules to require oil and gas companies to check for leaks and repair them more frequently. 

The state is considering additional rules aimed at curbing emissions for next summer, too. The rules could include reducing emissions from engines used to drill for oil and gas and setting limits on emissions that occur before a well is producing, such as during the drilling, fracking and flowback phases. Separate from the electric vehicle standard, Putnam said health officials are also looking at ways to reduce auto emissions. 

CDPHE’s Air Pollution Control Division is asking lawmakers for $2.4 million this year to increase the agency’s ability to inspect oil and gas operations and enforce the state’s laws. The state announced on Tuesday it reached a settlement with K.P. Kauffman Company, Inc., a Denver-based oil and gas company, over alleged air emissions violations.

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