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Colorado on Track to Meet 75 ppb Ozone Standard, But Tough New Limit Worries Air Quality Officials

11/28/2016

The Denver Metropolitan Area will meet the 2008 federal ozone standard of 75 parts per billion (ppb), according to the Regional Air Quality Council (RAQC) announced earlier this month. But environmental regulators in Colorado weren’t celebrating because the Obama administration has already moved the goalposts on them. Now they face a stringent new ozone cap of 70 ppb – set in October 2015 – which the Denver metro area almost certainly cannot comply with.

At a Nov. 17 hearing of state air-quality regulators, RAQC executive director Ken Lloyd testified on the details of a proposed State Implementation Plan (SIP) for attaining the 2008 standard of 75 ppb. Lloyd’s testimony carried serious weight, because the RAQC is the lead air quality planning agency for the Denver metro area, with a 24-member board representing local and state governments, business owners, conservationists and regular citizens. Lloyd told the hearing:

“The SIP that you have before you meets all the Clean Air Act requirements … and will result in significant emissions reductions. The attainment demonstration projects ozone levels at or below the 75 ppb standard in 2017.”

Meeting the 75 ppb standard would further cement Denver’s status as a national leader on air quality. As the Center for Regulatory Solutions noted in an August 2015 report, Denver has dramatically cut emissions and improved air quality since the “Brown Cloud” era of the 1970s, when ozone levels were more than three times higher than they are today.

The improvements have been so dramatic, in fact, that ozone concentrations are getting close to background levels. In the Western U.S., background ozone comes into the country from other nations and from natural sources such as wildfires. Prevailing winds transport this background ozone from state to state and there’s nothing that local regulators can do about it. For this reason, air quality regulators in Colorado and across the West are worried the 70 ppb standard will punish them for air pollution their states did not cause.

On the background ozone issue, Lloyd addressed the background ozone and its impact on the Denver region:

“As we all know, 75 percent of the ozone that is coming into this area is coming from somewhere else. … A NOAA study shows that locally produced ozone is about 17 parts per billion and non-locally produced ozone is probably about 58 parts per billion. So background ozone and interstate transport is a big issue that we need to look at especially as we look out into the future.”

Lloyd is far from alone in sounding the alarm about background ozone and the stringency of the 70 ppb standard set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year. For example, state air regulators and business leaders confronted the EPA over these issues at a special workshop in Phoenix, Ariz., earlier this year. In fact, even the EPA had admitted background ozone will put the 70 ppb standard out of reach for Denver.

This explains why Colorado’s two top Democrats – Gov. John Hickenlooper and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet – have expressed serious reservations over the new 70 ppb standard. Hickenlooper has even called for the new ozone limit to be suspended – which would leave the 75 ppb standard in place – until the background ozone issue can be properly addressed.

Concern runs high in Colorado over the prospect of permanent violation of the strict new ozone standard. As noted in last year’s CRS report on the ozone debate in Colorado, state officials worry that new EPA mandates will hurt local businesses and threaten federal funding for road construction and other infrastructure projects. Under long-term violation of the ozone standard, the EPA can force states and local governments to rewrite their environmental regulations the way the agency wants instead of what makes sense on the ground.

At the hearing earlier this month to approve new measures for reaching 75 ppb, the business community hinted that rewriting all those rules in an attempt to reach 70 ppb would be very damaging. Putting together the plan for 75 ppb was already a very complex task involving many months of hard work from state regulators, local officials and representatives from impacted sectors of the economy, said Dan O’Connell with the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry (CACI):

“The potential impact of any revision to Colorado’s ozone SIP is also very large. And CACI appreciates the opportunity … to work with the RAQC, the [Air Pollution Control Division] and other stakeholders in considering a number of important issues over the very many months that led up to today’s hearing.”

State air quality regulators approved the new measures to meet the 75 ppb ozone standard, but not before the usual fearmongering from EPA’s allies in the environmental lobby. The American Lung Association, for example, criticized the new measures as not good enough because “[t]here are no safe exposure levels to ozone and other air pollutants.” Dawn Mullally, ALA’s director of air quality and transportation in Colorado, also said:

“Colorado has an ozone problem. In our State of the Air report, two of the cities in Colorado are recorded in our top 10 list of the most ozone-polluted [cities] in the United States. Denver was number eight and Fort Collins was number 10.”

What the ALA failed to mention, of course, is the harsh criticism the State of the Air Report has received from state air quality regulators in Colorado. The report is “inaccurate and misrepresents air quality in Colorado,” according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. CDPHE’s top air quality regulator Will Allison has also said “it makes our jobs harder when positive trends are being spun the exact opposite way.”

To make matters worse, the ALA has been caught misrepresenting decades of air quality history in Denver. Last year, the group falsely claimed that ozone levels were higher in Denver now than they were during the Brown Cloud era of the 1970s. Denver Post columnist Vincent Carroll forced the ALA to retract that claim, but the group continues to engage in highly misleading tactics. Earlier this year, when rolling out the 2016 State of the Air Report, an ALA staffer posed as a regular citizen with asthma in order to promote the group’s agenda on local television. Once again, Allison was forced to correct the ALA’s misinformation and fear mongering. “I think Denver has good air quality,” he said.

At the hearing, the ALA also left out another key detail – its campaign with other fringe environmental groups for a national ozone standard of just 60 ppb. According to a study commissioned by the National Association of Manufacturers, this would be economically disastrous, costing the nation $240 billion per year and the average household $1,500 annually. In short, it would be the most expensive regulation ever imposed on the U.S. economy, the study found.

In Colorado, the Denver Post has once again called out the ALA and other groups for pushing such a draconian mandate:

“Air-quality activists … were demanding a huge reduction from the existing ozone standard — from 75 parts per billion down to 60. And they considered any worries of a possible hit to the economy from new rules to be ignorant fear-mongering. …

“[T]he American Lung Association and other groups blithely pushed for a far stricter standard that would have set up the state for long-term failure. It also would have increased the likelihood of punishing sanctions involving federal funds, not to mention a crackdown on permits for certain businesses. …

“[T]hose who still advocate for a far lower standard do their own cause no good by trying to put the state in a regulatory straitjacket.”

Colorado has indeed made significant air quality improvements over the past three decades. The progress made in Colorado should serve as a model for the rest of the country. That is why Washington D.C should listen to Colorado’s bipartisan calls to address the draconian 2015 ozone standard. Options vary, and could even include reconsideration of the ozone standard, given the new Administration’s dim view of overly burdensome regulations. But one simple step that already enjoys bipartisan support is for Congress to pass a delay of the standard. Air quality progress would continue as much of the country continues to meet the 2008 standard, but time would allow for regulators and stakeholders to find ways to meet the much stricter standard.

About CRS

The Center for Regulatory Solutions is a project of the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council, a 501c(4) advocacy, research, education and networking organization dedicated to protecting small business and promoting entrepreneurship. For twenty-three years, SBE Council has worked to educate elected officials, policymakers, business leaders and the public about policies that enable business start-up and growth.