Facebook   Twitter   Instagram
Current Issue   Archive   Donate and Support    
Front Range gets abysmal air quality rating as lawmakers strike deal with oil and gas industry

Front Range gets abysmal air quality rating as lawmakers strike deal with oil and gas industry


By Lucas Brady Woods and Rae Solomon, KUNC (Via AP Storyshare)

Several Front Range counties received a failing grade on the American Lung Association’s air quality report card last week, even as state lawmakers back off of regulations for the fossil fuel industry.

Gov. Jared Polis and the state’s top two Democratic lawmakers, Senate President Steve Fenberg and House Speaker Julie McCluskie, announced a deal Monday with the oil and gas industry and environmental advocates that would raise money for public transit and increase air quality regulations, if it passes the state legislature by the end of this year’s lawmaking term next Wednesday, May 8.

As part of the agreement, the oil and gas industry and environmental advocates agreed to withdraw initiatives from the November ballot that threatened to derail the state’s current air quality strategy, which aims to transition the state to 100% clean energy within the next few decades. In return, the state agreed to pause new regulations on the fossil fuel industry for the next several years and to scrap pending legislation that would impose aggressive new air quality measures.

“It’s rare that we’re able to come together like this,” Polis said during Monday’s announcement. “This diverse group agreed that costly, divisive ballot measures and legislation are not in the interest of the state. It’s better to find a way to work together to an outcome that everybody can live with and moves the ball down the field in terms of achieving our goals.”

Colorado’s failing grades on air quality

At the same time that state leaders were brokering the sweeping air quality deal, a new report from the American Lung Association reaffirmed the urgency of addressing air pollution.

The report looked at two aspects of air quality: ozone and particle pollution.

Ozone is a reactive gas that forms when other pollutants bake in the hot sun. Particle pollution is particulate matter trapped in the air from sources like power plants, vehicle emissions and wildfire smoke.

In the latest American Lung Association report, Larimer, Weld, Boulder, and Denver counties all received failing grades for both types of pollution. All of those counties had dozens of days last year when poor air quality made it unsafe for “sensitive” people — those with heart or lung disease, young children, teens and older adults, for example — to go outside.

But the findings in the American Lung Association report card are hardly revelations. Colorado’s Front Range has long suffered from poor air quality, with persistently high levels of ozone pollution in particular. The region has struggled for decades to meet EPA standards for ground-level ozone pollution.

“In Colorado, we tend to have a really big problem with ozone,” said Lisa Maier, a pulmonologist who co-directs the Center for Environment, Climate and Health. “That’s a big problem, primarily in the summer, really, with higher heat days.”

That’s because on the one hand, the Front Range is host to a lot of the underlying sources of ozone, like emissions from oil and gas production and vehicle traffic. Those pollutants then react with the region’s famous sunshine to form unhealthy amounts of ground-level ozone.

According to James Crooks, an epidemiologist who also co-directs the Center for Environment, Climate and Health, the local geography doesn’t help.

“Denver itself is in a bowl,” Crooks said. “We have the mountains to our west, we have a rise to our east. So that tends to concentrate air pollution in Denver itself.”

Negotiating air quality measures

Addressing the Front Range’s poor air quality has long been a priority for state lawmakers. Earlier this year, they introduced a package of bills intended to address Front Range air quality issues through aggressive new regulations on fossil fuel producers. One of the measures would have paused oil and gas production during the summer months when air quality is particularly poor. Other measures would have capped the distance driven by gas-powered cars and increased fines for repeat air quality violators, like the SunCor refinery in Commerce City.

In response, the fossil fuel industry filed ballot measures that would conflict with state policy and potentially create confusion at the ballot box. One measure would have blocked the state from forcing Coloradans to move away from gas-powered appliances in favor of electric ones. Environmental groups responded with their own measures focused on pollution regulation.

Now, under the compromise announced this week, all parties agreed to abandon their respective proposals in favor of new legislation they can all support.

The agreement includes two bills. One would impose a new fee on every barrel of oil produced in Colorado. The specific amount would change depending on market prices, but bill sponsor Senate President Fenberg expects it to generate about $138 million annually. 80% of the funding raised would be dedicated to transit projects, and 20% would go towards conservation.

“Transportation is a very large source of emissions and our ozone problem, especially along the Front Range, and it’s really important that we invest more in diversifying transit options,” Fenberg said. “The other (piece) is investing money in public lands, more particularly around restoration and the nexus where oil and gas production does have displacement impacts on wildlife and does affect our public lands.”

The other bill would impose new emission reduction goals for the oil and gas industry, including a 50% reduction in nitrogen oxides, which are a major contributor to harmful air pollution and smog. It would also strengthen enforcement mechanisms, take steps to address the disproportionate impacts of air pollution on communities and fund efforts to cap abandoned oil and gas wells that leak greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

“I really believe that these are monumental next steps in dealing with ozone and air quality in the state,” House Speaker Julie McCluskie, who is also behind the new legislation, said. “Creating greater transparencies, building better avenues with our public for outreach and communication, new community liaisons that will help engage many of the people that we serve and that we hear from with concerns.”

The groups directly involved in this week’s agreement include environmental advocates Conservation Colorado, Earthjustice, Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, and Green Latinos, as well as the major oil and gas companies Chevron, Occidental, and Civitas.

This is not the first time the state has struck a deal with the fossil fuel industry and environmentalists. When Polis was in Congress, he was central to a 2014 deal that avoided a ballot measure fight over local control of oil and gas.

Why the air quality deal matters for your health

The flurry of negotiations is not just an exercise in diplomacy. Measures to stem air pollution at the statehouse have a direct and profound impact on Coloradans’ wellbeing because both ozone and particle pollution are extremely harmful to human health.

“(Ozone) tends to inflame the lung and cause adverse outcomes for people with asthma and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and other respiratory diseases,” Crooks said.

Studies have shown a direct link between bad air quality days and hospitalizations for heart attack, heart failure and stroke.

“With ozone, we can actually see that people end up in hospitals with a worsening of their heart and lung disease,” Maier said.

When it comes to particle pollution, “small particles can dig deep into the lung when you breath them, and can even pass into the body through the lung lining,” Crooks said. “They can affect basically any part of your body, from your lungs, to your heart, to your brain, to your reproductive system. Particle pollution has really broad health impacts.”

Air pollution can negatively impact health before a patient is even born.

“We can see impacts on birth outcomes,” Maier said. “If moms are exposed, we know that these particles and ozone actually impact the baby.”

Indeed, air pollution has been shown to harm lung development of babies in utero and can cause low birth weight and preterm birth.

According to a study published in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society in 2023, ozone pollution causes 123 deaths and 115 adverse birth outcomes annually in the Denver Metro area alone.

“When you breathe air pollution, you tend to feel it in your lungs. But if you look at the data, it’s actually the cardiovascular outcomes – heart attacks, strokes, things like that, where we see actually the most deaths from air pollution.”

Maier and Crooks said the best way to control the negative impacts of air pollution is to try to avoid breathing it in altogether. They recommend staying indoors and running an air conditioner during the hottest hours on bad air quality days.

Meanwhile, they said, state and national leaders must continue regulating polluters and working to mitigate climate change, which exacerbates poor air quality.

“Every time they tighten the standard a little bit, it tends to bring down air pollution over the course of the next decade, which has really profound effects on health,” Crooks said.

Leave a Reply