Reclassification as a “severe” violator would mean higher gas prices, more emissions permits
By Noelle Phillips
The Denver Post
After years of failing to improve air quality, the Denver region is on the verge of receiving another downgrade by the Environmental Protection Agency that would result in higher gas prices and require more businesses to apply for emissions permits under the federal Clean Air Act.
The move would force refineries to produce a special blend of gasoline for drivers in the ninecounty northern Front Range during the summer months, which the association that represents the state’s gas sellers estimates would increase prices by 40 to 50 cents per gallon by next year.
Michael Ogletree, director of Colorado’s Air Pollution Control Division, estimated Tuesday that 470 businesses could be required to apply for Title V air permits because the threshold for acceptable ozone-creating emissions would drop. However, there are rules that allow businesses to take steps that qualify for exceptions, so the number of newly regulated businesses could be between 100 to 300, he said.
The EPA is expected to formally announce its plan to downgrade Denver and the northern Front Range to “severe” violators of federal ozone standards from “serious” violators on Wednesday by publishing it in the Federal Register.
There will be a 60-day public comment period and then it would take three months or longer for a final decision to be made.
The agency gave Colorado the designation of “serious” air-quality violator in 2019. “Ground-level ozone remains one of the most challenging public health concerns we face, affecting large numbers of Coloradans and their families,” EPA Regional Administrator KC Becker said in a news release. “EPA’s proposed Clean Air Act reclassification for Denver and the northern Front Range will make sure we are leveraging all available measures and resources as we move forward to reduce ozone pollution with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and all our partners.”
The downgrade was expected by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which oversees the Air Pollution Control Division.
According to state health officials, the EPA also is moving to reclassify as severe ozone violators the Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and New York City metropolitan areas, as well as the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, a federally recognized tribe in California.
Already, Gov. Jared Polis has asked the state legislature to approve $47 million in the next budget so the Air Pollution Control Division can hire additional staff and update its technology in preparation for the additional permitting that will be required. The additional money also would allow for more air quality monitoring and the capability of sharing it with the public in real time.
The governor also is working with Democrats to pass legislation that would spend about $125 million on projects to address the state’s worsening air quality such as electric school buses, free public transit during the worst summer ozone days and replacing the oldest diesel trucks in the state’s fleet with newer, more fuel-efficient models.
The ultimate goal is to reduce the ozone pollution that hovers over the Front Range, turning the skyline into a dirty brown haze. That smog is created by cars, wildfires, oil and gas drilling and refineries. The pollution causes respiratory problems, including asthma, that especially cause sickness for older people and children.
The EPA’s proposed reclassification of the region’s air quality violations as severe is based on monitoring data collected between 2018 and 2020, which concluded Denver and the northern Front Range failed to meet ozone standards required under the Clean Air Act, the EPA’s news release said.
The EPA uses a formula to calculate air quality standards for ground-level ozone, and during that three-year period, the region’s recorded ozone concentrations were 81 parts per billion, well above the level required under a 2015 standard of 70 parts per billion.
Under the severe reclassification, the EPA would require the use of reformulated gasoline, which is a special blend that is more environmentally friendly, during the summer months. And industries that release 25 tons or more of ozoneforming emissions would require to be permitted under Title V of the Clean Air Act. Right now, companies that release 50 tons or more per year are required to obtain permits. Those ozoneforming emissions include volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides.
The governor and the state’s top environmental officials say that reducing ozone pollution is a priority. Meanwhile, representatives from the state’s oil and gas industry criticized the administration for allowing the EPA downgrade to happen, saying Polis should have followed in the footsteps of previous governors who acquired waivers from the EPA.
Those waivers would be allowed if the state can show that much of its air pollution problem comes from other states. For example, the air quality in Denver during the summer of 2021 was especially poor because of large wildfires burning in Washington and Oregon.
“All we had to do was basically say we don’t have to be held accountable for other state’s emissions,” said Grier Bailey, executive director of the Colorado Wyoming Petroleum Marketers Association and Convenience Store Association.
The three refineries that produce gas for Colorado drivers will have to retrofit their facilities to make the special blend. It will be expensive, Bailey said, and they will need to start now so the gas is available once the new status is set.
“Because we’re now being held accountable for emissions that don’t occur here, we’re being put in a straightjacket,” Bailey said.
But Ogletree said applying for a waiver was not part of the state’s strategy even though it was considered.
“A waiver isn’t going to make a difference with attainment or non-attainment,” he said, referring to meeting the federal ozone standards. “It’s something we should take ownership over.”
The Colorado Oil and Gas Association, which represents oil and natural gas producers, put the blame on the federal government.
In an emailed statement, Rich Coolidge, the association’s director of public affairs, said the industry has made steps to reduce ozone-forming emissions while production has increased. The statement also blamed Colorado’s poor air quality on emissions blowing over the mountains from other states.
“The state has very little control over that as, typically, only about 25% of ozone-forming emissions are produced by Coloradobased human activities,” Coolidge wrote. “Yet the federal government continues to lower the threshold for ozone without recognizing the emissions reductions that have been made or the significant economic impacts it will have, increasing the cost of living in Colorado and further burdening our most vulnerable residents.”
Meanwhile, environmental groups are critical of the EPA for not moving fast enough to downgrade the region and force the state to act more quickly.
Last month, four environmental advocacy groups sued the EPA, asking a judge to order the agency to act faster in downgrading eight metropolitan areas, including Denver.
“The longer they drag it out the more pollution we suffer,” said Robert Ukeiley, a senior attorney for environmental health at the Center for Biological Diversity in Denver and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
The EPA has the capacity under federal law to skip the public hearing process and impose the new standard right away, he said. He wants the EPA’s administrators to use that power.
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