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The Pawnee National Grassland in Weld County has for years been the site of energy development, ranging from oil and gas extraction to wind power. (Doug Conarroe, The Colorado Sun)

The EPA has reversed itself and will now place northern Weld County and its extensive oil and gas operations inside the northern Front Range “nonattainment” zone for ozone standards, signaling tighter regulation on those creating the dangerous pollutant and handing a victory to a coalition of environmental groups and local officials. 

The decision also reverses the recommendation of the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission, which urged the EPA to exclude northern Weld from tougher rules in 2016. The EPA’s exclusion was called arbitrary last year by the U.S. Court of Appeals, and sent back to the agency for review along with about a dozen counties across the nation.

Ozone is a respiratory-damaging ground chemical, also known as smog, created by a combination of volatile organic compounds released by the oil and gas industry, vehicle traffic, and hot sunshine. All or parts of nine Front Range counties have long been in that nonattainment area, requiring local governments to plan industry controls and vehicle restrictions to bring the area back below EPA limits. 

Advocates for Rocky Mountain National Park have also called for clearer Front Range skies, as pollution drifts west into the park. 

Ozone is a known contributor to asthma and other serious health problems. 

Environmental groups say putting northern Weld into the regulatory zone will require new controls on potentially thousands of oil and gas wells in the area. The current line for the nine-county nonattainment area currently stops at about Wellington, north of Fort Collins. 

“After state officials let the fracked gas and oil industry pollute our beautiful Colorado skies with asthma-causing smog for more than a decade, it’s refreshing to see the Biden EPA stand up to them,” said Robert Ukeiley, an environmental health lawyer at the Center for Biological Diversity. 

The EPA said it is sending the reversal back to Colorado officials and giving them 120 days to add to their arguments.

“We just received EPA’s proposal and are in the process of developing our comments to EPA,” said Andrew Bare, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s air pollution division. “Regardless of the final decision, our commitment to improving air quality and reducing air pollution along the Front Range and throughout the state remains steadfast.”

The Weld County Attorney’s Office said through a spokesperson that it had received the EPA ruling and will make recommendations to the county commissioners.

The EPA’s decision “will improve air quality and climate impacts for millions of Coloradans,” said Boulder County Commissioner Matt Jones, in an emailed statement. “This action will increase pollution controls at thousands of additional oil and gas sources.”

Environmental groups, Boulder County Commissioners and other Front Range allies have argued for a continued ratcheting down of regulations on ozone-creating polluters. Scientists from the University of Colorado have measured air pollutants at locations like Boulder Reservoir and found the foothills geography traps pollution in high-population basins.

Their studies show some of that pollution drifting down from Weld County and elsewhere. Wells in Adams, Boulder and Larimer counties and extensive highway traffic throughout the region also contribute to the problem. 

“Today’s announcement is a major victory for the future of Front Range communities and Rocky Mountain National Park. This crown jewel of Colorado is one of the most threatened parks in the nation from ground-level ozone, visibility-impairing haze and climate change, all consequences of oil and gas development in Weld County and beyond,” said Tracy Coppola, Colorado program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, in an emailed statement.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals decision last year to send northern Weld’s status back to the EPA said the agency didn’t appear to be accounting for the ozone-creating potential of oil and gas operations across the entire county. The decision also centered on an apparent geographic goof by the EPA, which had said the Cheyenne Ridge formation helped keep northern county pollutants out of the metro area. Environmental groups pointed out the ridge is actually farther north, on the border with Wyoming. 

Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...