Colorado air quality continues to fall short of federal standards
Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission held a series of meetings last week to discuss air quality plans for the near future.
This comes as the Environmental Protection Agency has signaled that air quality across much of the Front Range is not in compliance with standards set forth in the Clean Air Act.
Shannon Young spoke with Jacob Smith, Executive Director of Colorado Communities for Climate Action, to hear about the outcome of the meetings.
Shannon Young: So the state's appointed Air Quality Control Commission met last week to set standards for air quality. What exactly came out of those meetings?
Jacob Smith: Well not a whole lot. They acknowledged that they are still facing enormous problems and the solutions they've crafted so far have been inadequate.
And they have made some commitments to, once again, to try and do a better job on those.
It remains to be seen whether they'll follow through or not, but at least they seem to be acknowledging that the approaches they've been taking so far are inadequate and it's time to step up their game.
Shannon Young: Well, aside from just acknowledging that it's been inadequate, what concrete measures are they taking to step up their game?
Jacob Smith: It's not a whole lot. They have committed to launching a stakeholder process, that will look at revising the plan that they just adopted because they have acknowledged the plan is inadequate.
They are going to look at some specific potential ozone control measures and that's meaningful because they've at least identified some specific measures they'll look at, but it's as tepid as it sounds like, because they had a chance to adopt some really strong steps to reduce ozone pollution, and they didn't take those.
So I'd say it's a mixed bag but at least they are committing in a very clear way to look at some of these additional steps, but they should have adopted some.
Shannon Young: And with these meetings, we're talking about two different governmental bodies here. We have the state's Air Pollution Control Division and the Air Quality Control Commission. What's the difference between the two bodies and, what do they do when it comes to air quality?
Jacob Smith: The Air Pollution Control Division, which is also referred to as the APCD, is an actual agency, a part of the state government, and they're the agency that does all of the analysis and the work, and they write the proposals, and they bring them then to this body called the Air Quality Control Commission, which is also known as the AQCC, that's the appointed body, and they're the ones that actually make decisions about new rules.
So they're connected but different. And the APCD, the actual state agency, their challenge now is to come up with some really clear ozone control steps and then bring them back to the Air Quality Control Commission, which ultimately will make these decisions.
Shannon Young: When it comes to coming up with concrete steps, Colorado Communities for Climate Action, of which you are the executive director, has members who are local government officials, and these local officials have already come up with a list of actionable measures to reduce air pollution.
What are some of those measures, and were any included in this new plan?
Jacob Smith: Colorado Communities for Climate Action, as you said, is a coalition of local governments, 40 local governments, counties and towns and cities across the state, and we've been very involved in this issue for, well, for a long time now because it has such an impact on health and on climate pollution, greenhouse gas emissions.
We've been proposing that they consider a whole bunch of options, all of which could have a really big impact on ozone pollution.
Some examples, one would be, a really good example is the oil and gas industry right now during the peak ozone season, which is basically the summer, continues to participate in activities that are hugely high emission activities.
We know that these specific activities are referred to as pre-production for oil and gas drilling, result in huge ozone pollution, emissions of the precursors of the pollutants that become ozone.
And if they were to just pause that during just the peak season, that would make a huge difference.
Or at a minimum use equipment that would reduce or eliminate those emissions so that we don't end up during peak season with a whole bunch of additional ozone pollution that we shouldn't have and don't need.
That's one good example.
Another would be, well, Suncor is a great example, where they do a lot of flaring where they basically burn the gases that then result ultimately in the precursors in the air, which is the pollutants that become ozone.
If they did a better job of controlling that flaring, that would make a big difference.
But they won't unless they're required to.
We know that small off-road often referred to as small off-road engines, like lawnmowers, like heavy lawn equipment, are a major source of the pollutants that become ozone.
So taking more assertive steps to help transition to electric powered lawnmowers and snow blowers and so on would make a huge difference.
Shannon Young: You mentioned Suncor which kind of seems like the elephant in the room here. Why has it been so difficult to place any kind of meaningful restrictions on the activities of Suncor?
Jacob Smith: First of all, I would say that I don't think they're the elephant in the room. I think they are a major player and obviously a major polluter, but they're not alone.
There are a whole bunch of other oil and gas industry, more generally, a bunch of operators that are doing things that result in these pollutants emitting into the air.
So it doesn't reduce to Suncorp, but they are a big player.
And I think the state has made some real progress in recent years at reigning in some of their pollution, but they still have a long way to go.
It is a major source of pollution of all kinds, toxic pollution and the kinds of pollution that result in these health problems and greenhouse gas emissions through ozone pollution. And they're a big company with a lot of political power, and it can be hard to force companies like that to scale back on their pollution.
This story from KGNU was shared with Aspen Public Radio via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.