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Mileage goals, pollution fines, drilling pauses: Colorado Democrats unveil ambitious package to cut ozone

Summer “pause” for oil and gas drilling, caps on driving miles, bigger fines for repeat offenders like Suncor are in the mix pushed by some Democrats and environmental justice advocates
A measure presented by Democrats on Thursday proposed ‘pauses’ in operation from gas and oil drills like that pictured outside Farmington on Route 550. (Isabel Koyama/ Howard Center for Investigative Journalism)

Democrats and environmental justice advocates Thursday unveiled an ambitious package of ozone-fighting bills that would “pause” oil and gas drilling in summer months, set caps on miles driven in gasoline-powered cars and increase pollution fines for “repeat offenders” like the Suncor refinery.

A bill with some similar ozone-fighting provisions was gutted in the 2023 legislative session, but advocates say an interim legislative committee since then has landed broader buy-in at the Capitol for tough ozone measures. Consent from Gov. Jared Polis’ administration is also key to any air quality bills advancing.

“This is the time,” Rep. Jennifer Bacon said during a spirited Capitol press conference with a wide coalition of sponsoring legislators and community groups. “Colorado is demanding that breathing not be dangerous.”

Oil and gas interests immediately signaled a battle, renewing their claims that regulations passed in recent years will make a big dent in ozone components in coming years.

Trade groups say environmental advocates want to end all oil and gas activity, which oil and gas officials argue is key to the Colorado economy.

A bill was introduced earlier this month that would back a ban on all new oil drilling after 2030, though it has been assigned to an unfriendly committee in the state Senate and is not backed by the same broad environmental coalition.

Capitol Republicans also vowed to fight the ozone measures.

“As a mom raising two young children in Colorado, I care about clean air for all of our children and families,” House Minority Leader Rose Pugliese, R-Colorado Springs, said in a statement. “We can, in a bipartisan way, find solutions to help keep Colorado air clean. The proposals that were introduced are not the answer.

“The current bill package even goes so far as to tell our citizens how they can get to and from their jobs every day. I trust the people of Colorado to make transportation choices that work for them.”

The Colorado Chamber of Commerce also weighed in against the ozone-related bills and the oil and gas drilling ban. Chamber CEO Loren Furman said they were part of “an alarming influx” of proposals targeting business, and called them ” job killers.”

Nearly 60% of Coloradans live in the nine-county Front Range area that the EPA has declared in “severe” nonattainment of ozone health standards, the coalition backing the new ozone bills said Thursday.

Oil and gas activity is responsible for a third to nearly a half of the nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds that rise into the air to bake in Colorado’s hot summer sun into toxic ozone.

EPA regulations for nonattainment areas include broadening the air pollution activity that must seek state permits and requiring a more expensive mix of vehicle gasoline that pollutes less.

The measures pushed forward Thursday by Democratic Reps. Meg Froelich, of Englewood, and Bacon, of Denver, with Sen. Lisa Cutter of Littleton, among others, would:

  • Require oil and gas drilling operations to “pause” during the traditional summer high-ozone season, from about May to October, in order to limit leaks of ozone-causing chemicals.
  • Require the Colorado Department of Transportation to assess total vehicle miles traveled by fossil fuel-powered vehicles and bring the legislature a plan to reduce those miles driven.
  • Raise fines and otherwise increase enforcement pressure on pollution emitters who repeatedly violate federal or state standards for certain chemical emissions; the backers often mention Suncor’s refinery in Commerce City, which is periodically hit with major fines from state officials for releases.
  • Require a ratcheting down of pollution from “indirect sources,” meaning shipping warehouses like Amazon, or shopping malls, or major office buildings, where significant truck and passenger vehicle traffic has a quantifiable contribution to emissions and ozone.
  • Reform the permitting process at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which carries out the EPA rules under the Clean Air Act and has suffered a backlog of initial and renewed permit reviews and approvals.
  • Require dirtier off-road construction vehicles, such as bulldozers and loaders, to transition to emission controls or cleaner electric models.
  • Allow for citizen enforcement through legal action of air pollution permit violations, when state regulators have not acted.

Environmental activist and Commerce City council member Renee Chacon told Capitol leaders at the ozone bill press conference to “lead or get out of the way.”

“We’re called hostile because we come to this space with passion,” Chacon said.

It’s important for future generations to know that people acted on air pollution before it’s too late, she said.

“It’s never too late to hold those who do harm accountable,” she said.

Pressed on whether Polis will support the wide array of actions on ozone, some backers noted the bills would codify Polis’ own demands last year for 50% cuts to nitrogen oxide emissions by 2030. They said they have reached out repeatedly to the governor’s aides and the oil and gas industry throughout the interim committee’s shaping of the bills.

Advocates emphasized the toxic effects of high summer ozone on the lungs and heart, with north Denver and Adams County neighborhoods reporting high rates of childhood asthma, especially.

Dr. Nikita Habermehl, an emergency room pediatrician, said she’s had enough of seeing the terrified faces of children suffering from asthma symptoms on high pollution days.

“For too long,” Habermehl said, “we have not seen enough action.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.

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