Colorado regulators approve air-quality improvement plan

The panel tasked with regulating Colorado’s air quality approved a new plan to reduce ozone pollution despite criticism from environmental advocates that it doesn’t go far enough to curb an ongoing public health crisis in the state.

Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission on Friday morning finalized the proposal — known as a State Implementation Plan — after nearly four days of public hearings at which advocates asked commissioners to do more and representatives from industries that cause air pollution sought regulatory breaks.

“Despite years of non-compliance and multiple failed plans, the commission and the division once again turned their backs on the residents of the Front Range,” said Caitlin Miller, senior associate director of Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain office.

Earthjustice, which represents four Colorado environmental advocacy groups, criticized the state Air Pollution Control Division for not requiring reduced emissions for the transportation and oil and gas sectors, which are the largest contributors to ozone formation along the Front Range.

Last month, the Air Pollution Control Division notified the commission that it had made errors when calculating future emissions from the oil and gas industry and asked commissioners to approve a plan, minus the sections with those mistakes. The commission agreed, and now state agencies charged with writing the plan will redo their math and hold new hearings in 2023.

On Friday, representatives of the oil and gas industry issued a joint statement reiterating that the miscalculation was not due to incorrect reporting from oil and gas companies. The statement also noted that emissions standards have been improved since 2017, which is the year used as baseline data in the flawed calculations. Still, the statement said operators want to work with the state to reduce harmful emissions that contribute to ozone pollution.

Colorado is required to create an air quality improvement plan under the federal Clean Air Act because the state has been out of compliance with national air quality standards since 2008. The Environmental Protection Agency must approve the state’s plan.

The plan includes recommendations on increasing electric vehicle use in Colorado and places regulations on volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides released by oil and gas drilling, as well as limits on industrial paints, coatings and varnishes used in various industries in the state.

The commission also asked state regulators to evaluate other emission control measures such as reducing the use of gas-powered lawn and garden equipment and off-road vehicles, and to consider seasonal restrictions on some industrial and commercial activities. But those things are not made mandatory in the plan.

In September, the EPA designated Denver and the northern Front Range as severe violators of the nation’s clean air standards. That label means motorists will pay higher gas prices in the summer months because the region will be required to switch to a special blend of gasoline, and more businesses will face tougher air pollution regulations, including the need to apply for federal air permits.

The severe designation came after years of failing to meet a 2008 rule that required states to reduce ozone emissions to 75 parts per billion annually. State air regulators believe Colorado is on track to meet that goal by 2027.

However, the state will miss its deadline for reaching the 2015 ozone emissions standard of 70 parts per billion by 2024.

That admission of failure is why so many environmental groups disagreed with the Air Quality Control Commission’s approval of the plan. It’s a violation of the Clean Air Act to miss the deadline, Miller said.

“It’s not like this 70 parts per billion snuck up on us,” she said. “The division and the commission have had seven years to figure it out. But once again, here we are with a failed plan and no appetite to do anything about it.”

Hours before the Air Quality Control Commission’s hearings began Tuesday, a group of environmentalists protested the looming decision outside the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s headquarters.

NikieDay, a clean air advocate with the Black Parents United Foundation, said she and her son suffer from asthma, and failure to act jeopardizes their health.

“It shouldn’t take 10 years to come up with a plan,” she said. “I stand with my community today and say no more ozone pollution.”

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