Facing the risk of missing another measure of air quality improvement that hovers like a blanket of summer smog, Colorado’s top environmental officials are asking the legislature for $47 million to hire more workers and build better monitoring technology unhealthy air, particularly along the northern Front Range.
Colorado’s Air Pollution Control Division expects the Environmental Protection Agency to classify the state as a serious violation of federal air quality laws later this year after the state recorded its worst-ever ozone levels in the summer of 2021, Department Chief Michael Ogletree said in an interview with the Denver Post.
In 2019, the EPA declared Colorado a serious violator and enforced stronger enforcement of clean air controls, and a move to strict classification would further strengthen that enforcement to help manage the state’s worsening ozone problem.
“We’ve heard from people that we’re going to be rated ‘hard’ in the near future,” Ogletree said. “We’re preparing for that.”
Changing 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 is already working with tight staff, Ogletree said.
The department needs the $47 million required by law to prepare for the incoming workload, and the larger budget would help establish more programs to control greenhouse gases and other emissions that are degrading the Front Range’s air quality and health harm people.
A stricter classification would also affect the state’s oil and gas industry.
Gov. Jared Polis asked for the money in the budget he was proposing to lawmakers.
As the population of the Front Range grows, so does the number of gas-powered cars and trucks on the roads. These vehicles are the #1 source of nitrogen oxide emissions, a major contributor to the region’s ozone problem. Emissions from power plants and oil and gas wells are contributing to the release of volatile organic compounds into the air, while larger and more frequent wildfires in the West are also adding to the problem.
In the summer of 2021, ozone levels at all 16 state monitoring stations exceeded 78 parts per billion, above the federal health standard of 70 ppb. And scientists predict the Front Range’s air quality will continue to deteriorate unless immediate action is taken.
The governor is also working with Democrats to pass more legislation that would address deteriorating air quality. Several bills are pending this year that would spend nearly $125 million to buy a fleet of electric school buses, replace old diesel trucks with newer ones that produce less harmful emissions, make electric bikes more accessible and, in the worst of summer, free rides public transport to allow ozone days.
The state has already enacted new laws and regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality. But many of these things take years to make an impact, and the Polis government hopes this year’s demands will have a more immediate impact, said Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
“What’s probably hard for the public to understand is that we’ve had so much to do with these laws and regulations over the past few years, but the state has yet to see the full benefit of these measures,” Hunsaker Ryan said.
The Air Pollution Control Division operates under a permitting system that was created in the 1990s, and complex air permit applications are still completed on paper, she and Ogletree said. They want to convert everything into a digital format and create online dashboards where people can check the state’s various levels of pollution in near real time.
“We can provide transparency to the community and anyone interested,” said Hunsaker Ryan.
The department has 185 employees, and if the budget request were approved, it would pay for an additional 106 full-time positions, Ogletree said.
One reason the Polis government wants a huge cash injection for its air pollution department is to change the way the department is funded. The department is financially supported by fees collected by industry, and in the past the department has had to ask lawmakers to increase fees, Hunsaker Ryan said.
“It was always a difficult thing and it just didn’t happen,” she said. “Politically, it was difficult to go to the legislature and get industry fee increases.”
In 2019, lawmakers allowed the Air Quality Control Commission to set fees, but the commission didn’t want to impose a large increase on the industry from the start, Hunsaker Ryan said. The budget proposal would give the division what it needs for two years to increase its staff and technology.
“In this way, we want to solve the problem of long-term underinvestment,” she said.
So far, Colorado’s efforts to improve air quality have been supported by environmental groups.
The Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, a public advocacy group promoting energy efficiency in six western states including Colorado, is urging lawmakers to approve the air quality package to combat drought, wildfires and other climate-related disasters.
Although the organization supports the legislation, there are parts with which it disagrees. For example, a bill would replace aging diesel trucks with newer models, but the group wants to take all diesel trucks off the roads, said Matt Frommer, the group’s senior transportation association.
“It seems like we’re going backwards to create a new program for diesel trucks when we have to go all-in on electric trucks,” Frommer said. “We have no time to lose.”
2022 air quality legislation
A big bill that:
- Created 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 scholarship program would be dissolved on September 1, 2029.
- Create a $12 million fund to improve public access to electric bikes through grants and rebates. The program would be canceled on September 1, 2028.
- Spend $15 million to retire the oldest diesel trucks in service in Colorado and replace them with newer, more fuel-efficient models. The grant money would be available to public and private entities until July 1, 2032.
- Spend $65 million through September 1, 2034 to buy electric school buses in Colorado
- Provides $7 million to the State Department of Health to monitor airborne contaminants
- Provides $750,000 to the state health department and provides employees with free RTD passes
- Caps annual industry fees this year at $1 million and allows those caps to increase annually until they reach a maximum of $5 million on July 1, 2024.
That bill would allocate $14 million to providing free public transportation, primarily through RTD, for one month each year when ozone pollution is at its highest. It would also 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 power to enact stricter regulations than the federal Clean Air Act. The Commission would be asked to regulate toxic air pollutants, and companies that are sources of air pollution would have to submit annual reports detailing the amount of pollutants they release. The bill would also develop a statewide air quality monitoring system and create a toxic air pollutants advisory board to determine which emissions would be monitored and regulated.