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A traffic sign warns of an ozone alert as motorists head southbound on Interstate 25 into the center of downtown during evening rush-hour Friday, July 23, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The Environmental Protection Agency can’t let Colorado off the hook for imposing more expensive reformulated gas to fight ozone pollution beginning in 2024, the agency said in a reply to Gov. Jared Polis’ objections and threats to sue. 

The gas, which produces fewer ozone-contributing fumes, should cost about 3 cents a gallon more than normal gas formulations, according to an EPA review. 

The EPA’s Washington headquarters told Polis that the Clean Air Act dating to the 1990s requires all penalized areas, like the nine counties of the northern Front Range, to switch to reformulated gas when the agency declares them in “severe” nonattainment for lung-damaging ozone.

The change in classification also requires Colorado’s Air Pollution Control Division to lower the threshold for stationary sources that must apply for permits to 25 tons of pollutants from the current 50 tons. Air pollution control officials have said that will add at least 400 new permits to an already backlogged system. 

“The Clean Air Act provisions requiring the sale of (reformulated gas) in areas reclassified as Severe and the timing of those requirements are clear,” national EPA Administrator Michael Regan wrote to Polis. Regan did say the EPA will try to work with Colorado on implementation, and noted the state has “20 months of lead time to prepare.” 

The Polis administration did not back down from its objections after hearing from the EPA. 

“Gov. Polis has been clear that he will pursue all legal strategies to avoid this outdated and ineffective requirement for reformulated gasoline,” spokesman Conor Cahill said. “It’s clear that this outdated policy would negatively impact Colorado’s most vulnerable, rewind environmental justice efforts and raise costs on people when they need their money most.”

The Polis objection letter said the reformulated gas mandate has “the potential to exacerbate long-standing historic environmental injustices in communities near regional refineries. The mandate raises serious environmental justice questions, again particularly given the lack of realized benefits that accompany it.”

Suncor is the only major refinery in Colorado, and likely the one that would supply reformulated gas. While environmental groups and community leaders have asked the Polis administration to phase out Suncor’s Commerce City location altogether, air pollution regulators have recently required more stringent air monitoring at Suncor’s fence line and put new conditions on long-delayed permit renewals. 

Polis’ letter said new construction required to supply reformulated gas and higher production levels could hamper air quality progress in those neighborhoods. 

While environmental groups do not believe reformulated gas will do much to solve the northern Front Range ozone problems, because current everyday formulations are much cleaner than when the 1990s law was passed, they also dismiss the Polis objections as “reelection-year theater.” 

“There’s no way out of it. It’s going to happen,” said Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth Guardians. Colorado knew the ozone downgrade was coming for years, and Nichols likened the state’s reaction to a high school senior failing all their classes and then complaining they couldn’t graduate. 

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“If Gov. Polis truly cared about clean air and avoiding RFG, he’d direct the air division to everything in their power to clean up ozone in the region and either avoid a severe classification or at least get out of it as quickly as possible,” Nichols said. “Instead, the air division has offered up an ozone cleanup plan that it admits will fail.”

The advocates and allies among metro area elected officials want the state to speed up the transition to lower-emission vehicles, pause air pollution permitting, and put more restrictions on Front Range oil and gas drilling as keys to reducing ozone faster. The state’s proposals so far do not include those extras or others recommended by clean air coalitions. 

“Pollution is now bad enough that more federal environmental protections are kicking in, which is exactly why the Clean Air Act exists in the first place,” said Jacob Smith of Colorado Communities for Climate Action, a coalition of 40 local governments. “Trying to avoid the rules will mean it takes longer, costs more and leaves more people sick. The quickest path to not needing federal air quality protections is for Colorado to actually clean up the air we breathe.”

The new State Implementation Plan for ozone attainment that Polis highlighted in his original letter to the EPA acknowledges up front that Colorado can’t meet tighter 2015 standards by a 2024 deadline, noted Katherine Goff, a Northglenn City Council member and vice president of the communities coalition. 

“There are enormous emissions sources that Colorado could clean up right now that would make a huge difference, but the proposed plan largely ignores them,” she said. 

Suncor said Wednesday it is working on a $36 million project to be ready to produce reformulated gas by the 2024 summer driving season, and that they have state health department approval. The Regional Air Quality Council estimates the new gas will reduce ozone-contributing emissions by 200 tons a year, Suncor said. 

What the price differential will be is not clear, Suncor added, since much of it depends on how many other suppliers bring reformulated gas into the Front Range market. Suncor said it currently produces about one third of Colorado’s gasoline, half of the state’s diesel fuel, and 30% of the jet fuel for Denver International Airport. 

Michael Booth

Michael Booth is a Colorado Sun reporter covering health, health policy and the environment. Email: booth@coloradosun.com Twitter: