Chase Woodruff

(Colorado Newsline) Democrats in the Colorado General Assembly on Thursday backed off of an effort to strengthen air-quality rules to tackle the state’s long-running ozone pollution problem, and instead want to convene a new legislative committee to study the issue.

Democratic lawmakers, who control strong majorities in both legislative chambers, unveiled House Bill 23-1294, dubbed the Protecting Communities from Air Pollution Act, earlier this month. As introduced, the legislation would have enacted a wide-ranging set of new permitting requirements for pollution sources that contribute to ozone, a hazardous air pollutant linked to a variety of health problems.

After a large coalition of business groups led by the Colorado Chamber of Commerce announced their staunch opposition to the bill, however, its most significant provisions didn’t survive 30 minutes into its first committee hearing.

At the request of the bill’s sponsors, lawmakers on the House Energy and Environment Committee amended HB-1294 in a Thursday afternoon hearing to remove most of its major components and add a section convening an interim committee to develop new recommendations.

“It’s hard, after months of work — and for others, after years of work — to make a decision to scale back policies that you believe will make a difference,” state Rep. Jenny Willford, a Democrat from Northglenn and a bill sponsor, told the committee. “But these provisions are too important, and we’re committed to continuing this work.”

For decades, a nine-county region in and around the Denver metro area has failed to meet federal health standards for ozone pollution set by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Air Act. While a large percentage of Colorado’s ozone levels are attributable to natural and “background” chemicals that originate from other states and even overseas, significant local contributors include oil and gas operations, gas-powered vehicles, lawn equipment and other industrial sources.

After progress in reducing ozone pollution stalled over the last several years, state air quality regulators expect to receive another failing grade from the EPA for a mandatory plan they submitted to the agency in December. But in an executive order issued last month, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis ordered state regulators to take a more aggressive approach to cut emissions of ozone-forming chemicals from oil and gas drilling.

Sponsors of HB-1294 said Polis’ executive order, and feedback from regulatory agencies who would be tasked with enforcing the new permitting rules, influenced their decision to drop the bill’s major components. But state Rep. Jennifer Bacon, a Democrat from Denver and HB-1294’s other House sponsor, said the state’s efforts to date haven’t been sufficient.

“Stronger guardrails on how and when we issue permits is a matter for this body to consider,” Bacon said. “Despite very good and very hard work, the tools available to solve this issue are insufficient, and our status quo approach will continue to have status quo results.”

After the bill was amended, lawmakers advanced it to the House Appropriation Committee on an 8-3 vote. Environmental groups reiterated their support for the bill’s remaining provisions and urged Colorado policymakers to “holistically tackle” its persistent ozone problem.

“Even with amendments, this bill takes some important steps toward curbing emissions and improving air quality,” Sabrina Pacha, senior director of Healthy Air and Water Colorado, said in a statement Thursday. “We still have a long way to go, however, until we can say that we’ve done all we can to clean our air and provide stronger protections for our populations most at risk from our state’s biggest polluters.”