As a father to an almost 2-year-old, the future of our state’s air quality really hits home. I want my daughter to grow up with blue skies and clean air. I want her to grow up playing on playgrounds, walking her dog, and going for hikes in the foothills without risking her health. I want her to grow up in a state that truly values her future.
It’s beyond time to clear the air, for us, and for future generations.
Colorado’s poor air cannot be blamed on one single factor. A topography prone to creating and trapping harmful air, wildfire smoke, combined with a growing economy bringing increased emissions from extractive industries and cars, are all to blame. Together, these factors create our two air-quality problems: harmful concentrations of ozone, and particulate pollution. To know where we can have the biggest impact, we must identify which sources contribute to each problem, then chart a plan to tackle the factors we control.
Let’s start with the basics: ozone isn’t an emission itself. It’s formed by a chemical reaction when emissions from cars, oil and gas wells, etc. mix with direct sunlight and heat. That’s why our ozone alert days predominantly occur in the hot summer months.
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Unfortunately, these ozone days – largely the result of local pollution – add insult to injury when they occur during days of dense smoke from wildfires. The main air-quality danger from the smoke is not ozone creation, but instead fine particulates. These particulates include chemicals and tiny pieces of ash that get trapped in our respiratory systems, causing short- and long-term damage to our health and well-being.
So, we have two related, yet different, problems on our hands – and we must be honest with ourselves about where we can have the biggest impact as Coloradans. The answer lies close to home: our local emissions.
Colorado’s higher-than- average “background” ozone levels, combined with our unlucky location on the path of regional wildfire smoke, has allowed polluters to evade responsibility and blame outside circumstances like Colorado’s geographical position for the problem.
That’s like a doctor telling a patient with a predisposition for high cholesterol that a healthy diet and exercise is unwarranted due to their “bad genes.” Of course, that’s absurd. Any doctor worth their degree would tell that at-risk patient that it’s even more important to carefully watch their diet and to exercise to avoid a catastrophic heart attack.
The point is our communities, especially those most marginalized, are breathing toxic air, and our state’s predisposition for bad air quality cannot be an excuse for inaction. Instead, it should be a reason to take the mission that much more seriously. When tackling big problems, we must focus on the factors we can control, and there’s no question that harmful emissions – from automobiles, oil and gas extraction, and power utilities – are the major factors under our control.
Luckily, Governor Polis agrees. That’s why one of his first actions as Governor was to rescind Colorado’s request to the EPA to be treated differently. He asked for Colorado to be held to the same public health standards as other states are. If air with 75 parts-per-billion of ozone concentration is unhealthy in Utah or Nebraska, then it’s unhealthy in Colorado, too.
That is also why the Colorado General Assembly has focused on tackling our ozone-causing emissions in recent years by: overhauling outdated oil and gas regulations, making the nation’s largest investments in electrifying transportation, subsidizing homeowners to heat their homes with electricity instead of gas, requiring utilities to retire coal plants decades early, and dozens of other actions.
But as we know, it’s premature for the “mission accomplished” banner. As we work to implement the actions we’ve taken thus far, we know it will be years before we start to see their full emissions-reducing effects. In the meantime, we must do more: investing deeper in transit options to give commuters alternatives to driving, plugging polluting oil wells, electrifying school bus and truck fleets, and improving land use by building denser neighborhoods.
However, it’s not just about passing more legislation. We must also ensure existing policies are implemented effectively, which means adequately funding the air division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to deploy state-of-the-art monitoring, enforce strict air standards, and hold polluters accountable. It also means ensuring the department collaborates with the larger scientific community to better understand the problem so it can adopt the most effective rules possible.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, I often do. But when I remind myself of all that we can accomplish in Colorado, all of the progress yet to be made, I’m hopeful. I have to be; my daughter’s future depends on it. So I’ll continue to fight for clean air, so we can create a sustainable, healthy and prosperous future for our kids and grandkids in the years to come.
Steve Fenberg, of Boulder, is the Colorado Senate majority leader.
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