Chase Woodruff

(Colorado Newsline) A panel of Denver-area local government officials and members of the public voted Friday to recommend a limited ban on the sale and commercial use of gas-powered lawn equipment by 2025, a move that it hopes will boost long-running efforts to combat ozone pollution in a nine-county region along the northern Front Range.

After months of drafting and amending the proposed rule in response to public feedback, the Regional Air Quality Council advanced the measure in a near-unanimous vote at its monthly meeting on Friday. Since the RAQC doesn’t have rulemaking authority, the policy, which includes no enforcement mechanism, must be taken up by a separate, statewide panel, the Air Quality Control Commission, before it goes into effect.

“This is where the RAQC should be — leaning forward and pushing new ideas forward,” said Mike Foote, a former Democratic state lawmaker and the RAQC’s chair. “Lawn and garden (equipment), particularly hand-held, has a huge impact on our ozone, and we should be doing what we can to recommend strategies that are effective.”

Though small, the inefficient two-stroke engines in many lawn mowers, leaf blowers and other landscaping tools are a leading source of hazardous air pollutants, especially when it comes to so-called ozone precursors. Using a gas-powered leaf blower for one hour emits more air pollution than driving a car for 15 hours and over 1,000 miles, according to statistics from the California Air Resources Board.

Under a law passed in 2021, California next year will become the first state to ban sales of new gas-powered lawn equipment, and dozens of cities including Washington, D.C. have enacted similar policies. Last year, Colorado lawmakers floated a 2030 phaseout as part of a larger package of emissions-cutting measures, but dropped the provision after pushback from Republicans and Democratic Gov. Jared Polis.

The RAQC’s policy would ban the sale of small gas-powered lawn and garden equipment in the north Front Range area beginning in 2025. It would also prohibit the use of gas-powered equipment by local governments beginning in 2025, and by commercial landscaping companies by 2026. The measure wouldn’t ban residential use by individuals.

“We think that the small equipment is the right starting point,” said RAQC executive director Mike Silverstein. “The handheld equipment, the blowers, the trimmers, the mowers — the push equipment, not the riders, not the big stuff.”

Incentive programs

The Denver area has struggled for decades to meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s health standards for ozone pollution. After the region received another failing grade under the federal Clean Air Act last year, Colorado officials have said they are working toward a goal of bringing the state into compliance with the EPA standards by 2027.

The RAQC convened a committee in February to study and draft policies relating to lawn and garden equipment. Prior to Friday’s vote, some board members expressed concerns about local governments’ ability to comply with the rule at a time when many are facing increased budgetary pressures.

John McMahon, CEO of the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado, commended the agency’s outreach but warned policymakers not to underestimate the costs of the transition for commercial operators and their customers.

“There’s obviously a couple things that we are concerned with,” McMahon said. “We’d love to work with you all in trying to help massage this in a way that’s workable for all parties.”

A variety of incentive programs aimed at speeding up the transition to electric-powered lawn equipment have been rolled out by state officials and the RAQC itself. The agency’s “Mow Down Pollution” program offers grants of up to $150 for households and up to $3,000 to commercial operators for the purchase of electric models.

“Absolutely, the incentives are key, and we feel that’s a better way of trying to bring people in to the forefront of these conversions,” McMahon said.

Soft enforcement

The measure endorsed by the RAQC on Friday is the less aggressive of two policy options drafted by the agency, and it comes with a wide range of limitations and exemptions added in response to concerns from local governments. Its restrictions on equipment use would be in effect only within the Front Range’s nine-county ozone “nonattainment area” during the peak summer ozone season, and wouldn’t apply to storm cleanup, forest or grassland management or wildfire risk-mitigation activities.

Silverstein said that the RAQC’s proposed rule is centered on a “soft enforcement approach,” with record-keeping and reporting requirements but no inspections, tickets or penalties. The agency would anticipate roughly 50% compliance initially, if the rule goes into effect, he said.

“Of course it’s a regulation, it should be complied with — but in actuality, we probably won’t see full compliance in year one,” Silverstein said. “It’s really going to be education and outreach.”

After its approval by the RAQC, the measure heads next to the AQCC, which could choose to incorporate the ban into a larger package of ozone pollution rules the statewide panel is considering before the end of the year.

The AQCC has been the source of frequent disappointments for clean-air advocates in recent years, with members repeatedly siding with Polis and staff from the Air Pollution Control Division in stonewalling tougher regulations opposed by industry groups.

Michael Ogletree, the APCD’s director and a RAQC board member, was the lone vote against the proposed rule on Friday.

“It seems like there needs to be maybe a little bit more stakeholdering,” Ogletree said.

But environmental groups applauded the RAQC’s vote and urged the state to move forward with rules that tackle the “shocking amount of pollution” emitted by lawn and garden equipment.

“We want to live in a world where taking care of your lawn or garden doesn’t mean spewing tons of pollution into your face and into our community,” said Kirsten Schatz, an advocate with the Colorado Public Interest Research Group. “The health and financial costs of gas-powered equipment just aren’t worth it.”