Haze and smog shroud the mountain view behind the Denver City and County Building, as seen in a Nov. 5, 2019, file photo. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)

It is no secret that people who live in the Denver metro area are exposed to air pollution daily and frequently at hazardous levels.

We breathe in pollution from power plants, industry, oil and gas facilities, from cars, trucks and buses, and wildfires as well as out-of-state. Emissions from these facilities also lead to the creation of ozone or smog.

The Denver metro area and northern Front Range have been unable to meet the 2008 and 2015 federal ozone pollution standards. Both oil and gas and vehicles are responsible for about “30-40% of total local ozone production” on days in violation of those standards. 

Councilwoman Debbie Ortega, State Sen. Dominick Moreno

Now, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has designated our ozone situation as “serious,” which will lead to significant economic costs. It is simply harder to attract and expand businesses and costs more to operate them. If this trend is not turned around, our ozone classification could soon change to “severe” with even more economic costs.

Fine-particulate-matter pollution (“PM2.5”) from transportation is harmful to residents who live along the state’s major highways. This pollution hampers our quality of life and is a health hazard that makes us sick and causes premature deaths. 

Some communities in Colorado bear a disproportionate pollution burden. Sadly, people of color are exposed to dangerous air pollution at a much higher rate than their white counterparts.  

A 2019 Union of Concerned Scientists study concluded that Colorado’s Latino population is exposed to 15% higher concentrations of PM2.5 pollution than the state average. Asian Americans are exposed to 24% higher concentrations, and African Americans suffer exposure to 64% higher levels than average. 

In addition, the climate crisis continues to impact our state in profound ways. Last summer was our worst wildfire season on record, continuing a 20-year period of enduring the largest wildfires in Colorado’s history.  

The entire state is currently experiencing moderate to extreme drought conditions.  We have been warned to move to clean power globally within the next 30 years, and Colorado and many local governments are planning and engaging accordingly.  

Fortunately, we have entered a new era in Washington with the Biden administration and a new Congress. There is finally hope that we’ll make progress tackling the many challenges facing our country and our planet while helping many of our communities right here in Colorado.

As President Joe Biden and Congress work to address the economic calamity brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, they should target federal funds for infrastructure investments that will create jobs and address the climate and pollution crises. 

This would help states work with the private sector to expedite the transition to zero-emission vehicles (including both battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell electric) and invest in much-needed charging and hydrogen fueling facilities. 

The federal government can also provide incentives for local governments and school districts to invest in zero-emissions vehicles. With these investments, Colorado can continue creating good-paying jobs that will speed up our pace towards economic recovery and cleaner air.

As we move toward 100% clean power, we must also upgrade our transportation system to drastically cut climate pollution and to put over 1 million people to work, according to the Political Economy Research Institute. We could build up our domestic manufacturing base and help American companies compete in global clean energy technologies. 

This shift would also clean up the air and reduce asthma, saving tens of billions in health care costs, according to the American Lung Association. 

And according to a Morning Consult poll commissioned by Environmental Defense Action Fund, the public strongly supports a whole-of-government approach to solve the climate crisis across all demographics and regardless of political affiliation. 

Majorities of Americans, including Republicans, say they support the departments of Transportation and Energy and the EPA focusing on climate change. Also, over 70% of voters, including over 6 in 10 Republicans, say they support creating jobs by updating our infrastructure and reducing pollution.

Our elected officials must lead the way to power up our economy, making it more sustainable, just and equitable than before. That includes supportive policies to ensure a fair transition for fossil fuel workers and communities and training people to work in renewables and clean energy. 

By investing in clean energy; energy efficiency; and zero-pollution trucks, buses and cars we can protect the health of every community, clean up our air, provide affordable energy, and create good-paying jobs.

We have a history of tackling big challenges. We can power up America in a better way. We can grow our economy while ensuring we leave future generations a healthier planet and future.

Deborah “Debbie” Ortega is a Denver city councilwoman-at-large. Dominick Moreno, Democrat of Commerce City, represents Adams County’s District 21 in the Colorado state Senate.

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Dominick Moreno, of Commerce City, represents District 21 in the Colorado Senate, where he is majority leader.