With the threat of missing another benchmark for improving air quality hovering like a blanket of summer smog, Colorado’s top environmental officials are asking the legislature for $47 million to hire more people and build better technology for monitoring unhealthy air, especially along the northern Front Range.
Colorado’s Air Pollution Control Division expects the Environmental Protection Agency later this year to classify the state as a severe violator of federal air quality laws after the state recorded its worst-ever ozone levels during the summer of 2021, division director Michael Ogletree said in an interview with The Denver Post.
In 2019, the EPA declared Colorado a serious violator, forcing more enforcement of air pollution controls, and a move to the severe classification would further increase those enforcements to reign in the state’s worsening ozone problem.
“We’ve heard from folks that we will be reclassified to severe in the near future,” Ogletree said. “We’re preparing for that.”
A change in its status with the EPA would force lower emissions thresholds for manufacturers and other industrial facilities, meaning more work for the Air Pollution Control Division, which already is operating with a short staff, Ogletree said.
The division needs the $47 million requested from the legislature to prepare for the incoming workload, and the larger budget would help put more programs in place to control greenhouse gas and other emissions that deteriorate the Front Range’s air quality and harms people’s health.
A more strict classification also would impact the state’s oil and gas industry.
Gov. Jared Polis asked for the money in the budget he proposed to the legislature.
As the Front Range population grows so does the number of gasoline-powered cars and trucks on the road. Those vehicles are the No. 1 source of nitrous oxide emissions, which is a major contributor to the region’s ozone problem. Emissions from power plants and oil and gas production facilities contribute by releasing volatile organic compounds into the air while bigger and more frequent wildfires in the West also add to the problem.
During the summer of 2021, ozone levels at all 16 of the state’s measuring stations exceeded 78 parts per billion, above the federal health standard of 70 ppb. And scientists expect the Front Range’s air quality to continue to deteriorate unless immediate action is taken.
The governor also is working with Democrats to create more laws that would address the worsening air quality. Multiple bills are pending this year that would spend almost $125 million to buy a fleet of electric school buses, replace old diesel trucks with newer ones that produce fewer harmful emissions, make electric bicycles more accessible and allow for free public transit fares during the worst summer ozone days.
Already, the state has implemented new laws and regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality. But many of those things take years to make a difference, and Polis’s administration hopes this year’s asks will have a more immediate impact, said Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
“The thing that’s probably hard for the public to understand is we’ve had so much go on in the last few years with these laws and regulations, but the state hasn’t seen the full benefit of these actions yet,” Hunsaker Ryan said.
The Air Pollution Control Division is operating with a permitting system that was created in the 1990s and complex air permit applications are still filled out on paper, she and Ogletree said. They want to move everything to a digital format and create online dashboards where people can check the state’s various pollution levels in near real-time.
“We can provide transparency to the community and everyone who is interested,” Hunsaker Ryan said.
The division employs 185 people, and if the budget request was approved, it would pay for an additional 106 full-time equivalent positions, Ogletree said.
One reason the Polis administration wants a huge infusion of money for its air pollution division is a change in how the division is funded. The division is financially supported through fees levied on industry, and, in the past, the division had to ask the legislature to increase fees, Hunsaker Ryan said.
“That always was a tough thing to do and it just didn’t happen,” she said. “Politically, it was a tough thing to do to go the legislature and get fees raised on industry.”
In 2019, the legislature allowed the Air Quality Control Commission to set the fees, but the commission didn’t want to place a sharp increase on industry right from the start, Hunsaker Ryan said. The budget request would give the division what it needs for two years to boost its staffing and technology.
“This is the way we intend to solve the problem of long-term underinvestment,” she said.
So far, Colorado’s efforts to improve air quality are earning support from environmental advocacy groups.
The Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, a public interest group that promotes energy efficiency in six western states, including Colorado, is urging the legislature to approve the package of air quality measures to combat drought, wildfires and other climate disasters.
Even though the organization supports the legislation, there are parts it disagrees with. For example, one bill would replace aging diesel trucks with newer models, but the groupwants all diesel trucks off the roads, said Will Frommer, the group’s senior transportation association.
“It seems like we are going backwards to create a new program for diesel trucks when we need to go all-in on electric trucks,” Frommer said. “We don’t have time to waste.”
2022 Air Quality Legislation
- Create a $25 million fund to provide grants to industrial and manufacturing facilities and local governments for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. Among the projects that would qualify are efforts that would use hydrogen fuel, electric vehicles and projects to reduce carbon and methane emissions. The grant program would dissolve on Sept. 1, 2029.
- Create a $12 million fund to increase public access to electric bicycles through grants and rebates. The program would be repealed on Sept. 1, 2028.
- Spend $15 million to decommission the oldest diesel trucks operating in Colorado and replace them with newer, more fuel-efficient models. The grant money would be available for public and private entities through July 1, 2032.
- Spend $65 million to buy electric school buses in Colorado through Sept. 1, 2034
- Provides $7 million to the state health department for aerial surveillance of pollutants
- Provides $750,000 to the state health department provide free RTD passes for employees
- Caps annual fees for industry at $1 million this year and allows those caps to rise annually until they reach a $5 million maximum on July 1, 2024.
This bill would set aside $14 million to provide free public transportation, largely through RTD, for one month each year when ozone pollution is at its highest levels. It also would provide $30 million to expand Bustang, the state’s regional bus service.
A proposal that would give the state’s Air Quality Control Commission the authority to adopt rules that are more stringent than the federal Clean Air Act. The commission would be asked to regulate toxic air contaminants and companies that are sources of air pollution would have to submit annual reports that list the amount of contaminants they release. The bill also would develop a statewide air quality monitoring system and it would create a toxic air contaminant advisory board to determine which emissions would be monitored and regulated.