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Opinion: Ozone is more serious for Colorado than greenhouse gas emissions

The legislature and the air quality agencies in Colorado have spent an inordinate amount of time discussing, debating and writing bills about greenhouse gas emissions.

They are clearly obsessed with reducing methane emissions from oil and gas facilities, but ground-level ozone is a far more serious problem in Colorado. 

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there are more than 400,000 people in Colorado with asthma who are likely to experience real health issues caused by high ozone levels in the summer.

These people are being ignored while the legislature and the air quality agencies engage in what is little more than a symbolic effort to reduce emissions.

Barney Strobeldear

According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, total emissions in Colorado are estimated to be to be about 125 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents in 2020, or only about 0.23% of the global total of 55.6 billion metric tons.

According to CDPHE, all of the Colorado oil and gas facilities together produce about 14 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents, or only about 0.026% of the global total.

Cutting our total emissions by half would have very little effect on global emissions. Cutting methane emissions in half would have even less of an effect. 

Certainly we should do our part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but the time and resources being spent on emissions are far out of proportion to the potential benefit.

Reducing ozone would improve air quality for everyone immediately. 

The Denver area has not met the EPA standard for ground-level ozone since 1997, when the EPA lowered the standard to 80 parts per billion (ppb).

We were finally declared non-attainment for the 80 ppb standard in 2007. The EPA standard is now 70 ppb, and we are not even close to meeting it. 

The area affected by ozone ranges from Highlands Ranch to Fort Collins. The fact that this heavily populated area has not met ozone standards since 2007 raises two disturbing questions: (1) Why have our air quality agencies done nothing to reduce ozone for 13 years? (2) Why have three governors in a row let them get away with it?

Ground-level ozone is caused by nitrogen oxides (NOx) reacting with volatile organic compounds (VOC). If any governor actually wanted to fix the ozone problem, the governor would hire engineers with experience in air quality to manage the program.

The first step would be to determine where the NOx and VOC emissions are coming from and what the emissions levels are. 

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

But here in Colorado, instead of hiring engineers, three governors in a row have hired attorneys with no technical background to run the air quality agencies, and all of those attorneys have skipped the first step.

Instead of finding out where ozone is coming from, the air quality agencies have used the high ozone levels to persuade the legislature to write regulations targeting the oil and gas industry. 

In 2019, while legislators were writing SB-181, the Regional Air Quality Council published a report on emissions inventories in the non-attainment area.

According to the council, from 2011 through 2017, the oil and gas industry actually reduced VOC emissions by 45%, but even that did not reduce ozone. Ozone levels at the four problem monitors were still at 80 ppb or higher in 2018, and they were essentially the same as in 2011.

The fact that ozone remained unchanged, even with a 45% reduction in emissions, demonstrates that the ozone is not being caused by VOC emissions from oil and gas. 

We will never be able to reduce ozone until we determine what is really causing it. That means that instead of continuing this obsession with methane emissions, we need to actually go out into the field and measure emissions of ozone precursors to figure out where they are really coming from.

Since our governor has shown no inclination to reduce ozone, the legislature must act. The legislature should set up a new, non-political agency immediately to do the work that the existing air quality agencies should have been doing for the past 13 years, and it needs to be run by engineers. 

If the legislature acts soon enough, the new agency could buy monitors and have them in place before the 2020 ozone season.

By Sept. 1, 2020, we could actually know, for the first time in 13 years, what is really causing the high ozone in the Denver area. 

If the legislature needs a source of funding for a new agency, it would be appropriate to take funding away from the Regional Air Quality Council and CDPHE. They aren’t using it effectively anyway.

Barney Strobel is a retired chemical engineer. He has no association of any kind with any entity involved in the oil and gas industry.

Rising Sun