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The Rest of the Story on Denver Ozone: What the Denver Post and Bruce Finley Failed to Mention

Colorado has a long history of bringing various stakeholders together to address ozone levels given the unique challenges the state faces. It’s easy to forget just how far Colorado has come on the issue and what a successful track record the state has in lowering levels and addressing emissions in a collaborative way.  So easy, in fact, that significant background and context is missing from recent ozone coverage in one of the state’s most prominent news outlets.

After reading Denver Post’s article on Friday’s Environmental Protection Agency hearing, EID realized it’s about time to cover some of the ground that was left out of his story. Colorado’s history of addressing ozone has been a story about stakeholders coming together over the past few decades to make significant improvements, while accounting for topographical, geographical and meteorological issues that make it harder for Colorado to comply with ozone standards than most other states. That context is missing from the Denver Post’s Bruce Finley’s story, which isn’t surprising, given Finley’s coverage of ozone in 2013, 2015, and 2019.

As usual, Finley pitted “serious public concerns” against “fossil fuels industry lawyers and leaders of Weld County,” even though public concerns stem from a few loud activist groups and Weld County’s leaders represent thousands of oil and natural gas workers.

The coverage falsely stated:

“In an all-day hearing, a panel of three agency experts heard from Weld County commissioners and representatives of the oil and gas industry — the main source of volatile organic chemicals pollution that leads to the formation of ozone — who urged delay.” (emphasis added)

This analysis seriously misses the mark by portraying the oil and natural gas industry as the primary cause of VOCs in the region.  We know that ozone in the area goes well beyond oil and natural gas – Colorado’s booming population and heavy car traffic play major factors. Recent studies show that Denver’s growing population and transportation challenges are actually the number one ozone concern.

Here are five takeaways worthy of further discussion:

#1. At Issue: Should EPA Consider Background Ozone?

Leading Colorado Democrats and Republicans sure think so. And here is why.

A 2015 study demonstrating a 21 percent drop in pollutants contributing to ozone in the western United States between 2005 and 2010 also showed that much of that gain was offset by what the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory called “a combination of naturally occurring atmospheric processes and pollutants crossing the Pacific Ocean from China.”

As top former Hickenlooper administration official Will Allison explained to the Denver Business Journal in 2016:

“And in the Rocky Mountain West, computer modeling shows that up to half of the ozone in the air on any given day is ‘background’ ozone, meaning that it’s created from natural sources, events that can’t be controlled such as wildfires, or blown into the region from other states or from overseas, said Will Allison, the director of the CDPHE’s Air Pollution Control Division. Ozone levels are ‘highly variable, it depends on the day and the location,’ Allison said. ‘And on any given day the meteorology is different, the winds are different, the photochemicals are different — 30 to 50 percent of the ozone that we’re monitoring is background and beyond our control,’ he said.

#2. Let’s Be Clear: Colorado’s Oil and Gas Industry Has Made Strong Progress on Ozone

It might be a popular talking point amongst the press and activists, but it’s just not true that the oil and natural gas industry is the leading cause of ozone. According to NOAA, the industry accounts for just a small portion of ozone in Colorado’s northern Front Range:

“They found that on average, oil and gas emissions account for about 17 percent of the daily infusion of VOCs that create ground-level ozone.”

Further, NOAA’s assessment only accounts for the oil and natural gas contribution to man-made ozone, not the overall total. Most ozone either occurs naturally or comes into the state from other states and countries.

A University of Colorado review of the study shows just how little oil and natural gas contributes to overall ozone levels:

“Summertime ozone pollution levels in the northern Front Range periodically spike above 70 parts per billion (ppb), which is considered unhealthy—on average, 17 ppb of that ozone is produced locally. The new research, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, shows that oil and gas emissions contribute an average of 3 ppb of the locally produced ozone daily, and potentially more than that on high-ozone days.” (emphasis added)

Thanks to improving technology and innovation, Colorado’s oil and natural gas industry continues to reduce emissions. As COGA explains:

 “Since 2011, the state’s oil and gas industry nearly halved its emissions of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) in the Denver Metro/North Front Range (DMNFR) ozone nonattainment area, while oil production quadrupled statewide.”

#3. It’s Polis Versus Democratic Establishment on Ozone

After taking office, Gov. Jared Polis stopped Colorado’s “blame-it-on-China” position for failing air standards, saying that the state should no longer cite air pollution originating in Asia as an excuse. Polis asked the EPA that Colorado withdraw its request for more time to meet pollution standards, despite the EPA’s lowering of the ozone standard in 2015 from 75 ppb to 70 ppb which made it even more difficult for the state to become compliant.

That strategy was a complete reversal from former Gov. John Hickenlooper who touted Colorado’s progress in fighting ozone as the reason for the extension request:

“Air quality is improving, and cars, trucks and industry are getting cleaner, yet a growing economy and growing population bring new sources of emissions to the state.”

Senator Michael Bennet, too has warned about background ozone:

Because of the pollution that’s come in from other Western states, from across the globe, from wildfires in the West, we have significant parts of our state that would be in non-attainment [unintelligible] from the very beginning of the law. “That doesn’t make any sense. That’s not going to work.”

#4. So Why is Polis Doing This?

According to Finley, John Putnam, a key Polis administration official, said:

“The data is what it is. It shows we didn’t attain the air quality standard. We need to move into the ‘serious’ category. We’ve been planning around that. It is good for affected parties and residents of the Denver metro area to know this is our status.”

But activist group WildEarth Guardians called on former Gov. John Hickenlooper to withdraw his request for a one-year extension in the months leading up to Polis’ inauguration.

In emails to top Polis administration officials, Colorado Communities for Climate Action said the Polis administration should “…let the federal Clean Air Act “run its course” and allow the area to get ‘bumped up to a serious [nonattainment] area’ so that emitters would be forced to seek a major source permit—and to hasten the action by certifying the CDPHE data earlier than the May 1st deadline.”

It’s clear that activist groups are influencing the Polis administration in a bid not to address ozone pollution, but as part of their Keep it in the Ground strategy. Proactively pushing Colorado to be a “serious” violator of air quality standards works against the interest of the state by putting a massive burden on businesses and workers, even while so much progress has been achieved in the past few decades.

It shows the administration isn’t making data-based decisions, but rather is taking marching orders from activists who don’t have the best interests of all Coloradans in mind.

#5. The Economic Impact Will be Significant to Colorado Economy

As Finley reports, the decision would “would trigger a requirement that the state health department must issue permits for any industrial operation that emits more than 50 tons of pollution a year, down from the current permitting threshold of 100 tons. State air pollution control officials say they’d have to issue about 600 more permits, which set limits and give a basis for compliance inspections. And Colorado within one year would have to submit a plan to the EPA for reducing ozone pollution to meet health standards.”

But what does that actually mean? A lot of job losses.

As Colorado Chamber of Commerce’s John Jacus said:

“We are concerned that air quality regulation will have serious negative impacts on the regional economy and the overall business climate here in Colorado… The Chamber believes EPA’s proposed determination and related deadlines unnecessarily threaten economic harm to the Denver area, and we urge EPA to modify its proposed rule accordingly.”

Sandra Hagen Solin, representing businesses in Weld County, the primary oil and gas producing county in the state, said:

“We believe EPA’s proposed determination and related deadlines unnecessarily threatens economic harm to the northern Colorado region. And these proposed actions will not materially improve our quality in the near-term, it could harm it by interfering with ongoing control measure development and implementation efforts.”

Conclusion

Ozone continues to be an important focus of all Coloradans, including the state’s oil and natural gas industry, and it shows in the significant reductions Colorado has made over the last several decades. To ignore this history and the unique challenges faced here in no way helps Coloradans to have an informed discussion or to move the needle of progress in achieving further reductions.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 12, 2019 2:02 pm GMT

It might be a popular talking point amongst the press and activists, but it’s just not true that the oil and natural gas industry is the leading cause of ozone.

I would think an important point would be not what portion of the total it accounts for, but what's the absolute amount and how much does that need to be reduced to prevent environmental/climate harms

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