Chase Woodruff

(Colorado Newsline) After decades of failure to meet health standards under the Clean Air Act, Colorado leaders on Thursday signaled their intent to take a more aggressive approach to cutting ozone pollution from the oil and gas industry as work begins on a new set of federally mandated regulatory plans.

In a letter to agency heads, Gov. Jared Polis ordered regulators to enact rules that will achieve a 30% cut in so-called ozone precursors from oil and gas operations by 2025, and a 50% cut by 2030.

“Despite passing meaningful and effective legislation to reduce emissions from oil and gas operations, this sector still has a significant impact on our state’s air quality and greenhouse gas emissions,” Polis wrote. “Put simply, just as we need to do more in transportation and other sectors, we need to do more to reduce emissions from oil and gas operations in Colorado.”

The move comes as Colorado expects to receive another failing grade from the Environmental Protection Agency for its mandatory “state implementation plan” to address ground-level ozone, an airborne pollutant that can cause a variety of health problems. For decades, a nine-county region centered on the north Denver metro area has been out of compliance with federal air-quality standards for ozone, which is formed by a chemical reaction between sunlight and precursors pollutants like nitrogen oxides.

While a large percentage of Colorado’s ozone problem is attributable to natural and “background” precursors that originate from other states and even overseas, oil and gas operations are the largest single local contributor, with gas-powered vehicles and lawn equipment also significant sources.

In a statement, Lynn Granger, Midwest and Mountain West director for the American Petroleum Institute, said Colorado’s oil and gas industry was “frustrated by the process” in which Polis rolled out his targets.

“The directives issued by Gov. Polis today are aggressive and highly ambitious, and will necessitate an all-hands approach from regulators, industry and stakeholders,” Granger said. “We believe the state’s efforts to combat this issue are genuine, but they must be economy-wide in scale to ultimately succeed. Nevertheless, our industry will continue to be part of the solution and rise to the challenge, as we always do, utilizing technology and innovation to help achieve these targets.”

Colorado lawmakers enacted a sweeping overhaul of state oil and gas laws in 2019, and have invested tens of millions of dollars in clean-air programs over the last several years. But the state’s latest figures showed peak summertime ozone pollution at levels near 80 parts per billion, exceeding both the 75 ppb EPA standard set in 2008 and a stricter 70 ppb threshold approved in 2015.

Polis’ latest order specifically targets the emissions of nitrogen oxides, or NOx, in what the governor’s letter calls “the most ambitious rule in Colorado’s history to reduce harmful air pollution from the oil and gas sector and the first comprehensive NOx reduction program for the oil and gas industry in the United States.” It directs the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to enact rules requiring “verifiable and reportable” emissions cuts by the end of 2024.

In a statement released by Polis’ office, his predecessor, U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, said the move will “keep Colorado the national leader in combating pollution.” Under Hickenlooper, Colorado regulators in 2014 enacted rules aimed at limiting methane emissions that have been hailed as a national model for reducing “upstream” pollution in the oil and gas industry.

“Colorado led the country on fighting methane emissions, and now it will lead on lowering NOx emissions,” Hickenlooper said. “Limiting NOx emissions cleans up our air and improves public health — especially for kids and Coloradans with asthma.”

Environmental groups also hailed Thursday’s announcement.

“No single solution will bring ozone pollution in our region down below unsafe levels, but we clearly need to address emissions from the oil and gas sector in order to get there since it is the largest source of ozone-forming NOx in the region,” said Kirsten Schatz, a clean air advocate with the Colorado Public Interest Research Group. “After years of missing the mark on clean air, these directives will help ensure our ozone reduction planning process will actually reduce harmful air pollution.”