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This July 17, 2016, photo shows Longs Peak towering over alpine tundra in Rocky Mountain National Park. Nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide from power plants, cement kilns and the Suncor refinery contribute to "regional haze" that the EPA wants scrubbed from national parks skies in coming decades. (Dan Elliott, AP Photo)

Suncor must make deeper cuts to its sulfur dioxide emissions as part of state regulators’ revisions to federal “regional haze” rules, meant to boost visibility and restore pristine conditions at Rocky Mountain National Park, Great Sand Dunes and wilderness areas. 

The Air Quality Control Commission gave preliminary approval in November to a plan telling Suncor to make sulfur dioxide-removing equipment fully operational by 2024 instead of 2029. If Suncor doesn’t make that deadline, it would have to install additional pollution controls proposed by an environmental coalition.

The AQCC move came after a long push by environmental groups and neighborhoods around the Commerce City refinery to make meaningful cuts to pollution. AQCC commissioners cited both the haze reduction goals and their desire to deliver environmental justice to long-suffering communities near Suncor. 

Commissioners in November rejected, however, the environmental coalition’s demands for additional pollution cuts at Colorado power and cement plants to speed up haze improvements. 

“The commission should have done more,” said Michael Hiatt, a Denver attorney for Earthjustice, which teamed up with the Sierra Club and the National Parks Conservation Association to seek a tougher regional haze plan. 

But, Hiatt added, the Suncor cuts “will result in clearer skies at Rocky Mountain National Park and also very importantly, they’re going to have equity and environmental justice co-benefits for the nearby communities in Commerce City and north Denver.”

Demanding that Suncor do more is “a huge step forward” in the regional haze battle, and a victory for the refinery’s neighbors, said Tracy Coppola, senior Colorado program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.

Suncor officials said Wednesday they support regional haze reduction efforts, and will “continue to make technological improvements to the refinery to reduce emissions. . . We will review the Air Quality Control Commission’s final decision on sulfur dioxide emissions and work with the Air Pollution Control Division on the implementation requirements,” spokeswoman Mita Adesanya said in a written statement. 

Late last year, utilities rebelled when the AQCC issued a preliminary order requiring earlier-than-planned closures of three power plants, in the first phase of the 10-year regional haze update. After intense objections, the AQCC reversed itself at the next month’s meeting and said it had overstepped its bounds in trying to regulate the power plants. The environmental coalition is wary that Suncor will seek similar relief before the AQCC finalizes its decision about the refinery’s pollution later this month.

The EPA’s regional haze rules are meant to protect and slowly improve sightlines at so-called “Class 1” outdoor attractions, from national parks to wilderness areas to important fish and wildlife areas, many of them in the West. “Regional” means states are instructed to look at all the big sources of pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide that react in the air to create haze, on the understanding that smokestacks send plumes hundreds of miles across western open skies. 

States must develop an implementation plan showing how pollutants will be cut over time in a “glide path” set out by the EPA that runs through the year 2064. The plans are allowed to incorporate expected haze reduction benefits from other state efforts, such as Colorado’s multiple greenhouse gas reduction laws of recent years. 

State air quality commissions can also use the regional haze update to issue new pollution-cutting regulations specifically to speed up haze reduction if technology and environmental lobbying pushes them to move faster. 

Colorado’s initial State Implementation Plan from 2011 is now due for a ten-year update. The state Air Pollution Control Division staff initially said years of work such as closing coal-fired power plants has kept Colorado on the right glidepath for long-term reductions, and no big changes were needed for a list of 16 major pollution sources.

An environmental coalition disagreed, and proposed that the update include new restrictions on utilities, cement plants and Suncor. The coalition wanted the Air Quality Control Commission to make mandatory the dates some utilities have promised to close or convert coal plants in the next few years, and also to consider new scrubbing equipment on other polluters. 

Commissioners said utility closing dates are the Public Utilities Commission’s charge, and that some of the pollution controls proposed would be more expensive than allowed by cost-efficiency rules. 

But commissioners said that for Suncor, one of the state’s top polluters, they were swayed by public testimony from neighbors saying regulators had put off equitable pollution change for too long.

The Suncor Energy oil refinery on July 18, 2021, in Commerce City. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

“They feel very strongly their health is being compromised and that we are not fully embracing that and taking action,” Commissioner Elise Jones said during deliberations over the proposal to hasten Suncor’s pollution reductions. 

Hiatt said the coalition’s proposal would cut Suncor’s sulfur dioxide emissions by 28 tons a year, about 10 tons more per year than the division staff had approved in Suncor’s plans. After discussing the plan, the commission said it would tell Suncor to either move up its technology improvement schedule from 2029 to 2024, or employ the environmental coalition’s alternate technology proposal if they couldn’t make that deadline. 

Suncor appears well on its way to installing systems to cut pollution and could speed that up, and it’s time for the commission to show neighbors they are aware of environmental justice demands and want to “do the right thing,” Commissioner Gary Arnold said. 

Coppola of the National Parks Conservation Association said other southwestern states with haze problems in their national landmark areas are watching Colorado carefully as a potential leader, and will be heartened by the commission’s action. 

The environmental coalition was hoping the commission would expand the environmental justice conversation to further cut pollution at cement plants in disproportionately impacted communities like Pueblo. The pollution hits local neighborhoods, and the resulting haze hurts wild places many miles away, like the Great Sand Dunes, Coppola said. 

But, she added, even the more modest effort to toughen up the regional haze plan will benefit other Front Range residents and outdoor enthusiasts. 

Ongoing haze at Rocky Mountain National Park “is the poster child for being a victim of our pollution crisis that we have in Colorado,” Coppola said. 

Michael Booth is the Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of the Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He is co-author with Jennifer Brown of the Colorado Book Award-winning food safety investigation “Eating Dangerously.” Booth was part of teams that won two Pulitzer Prizes for breaking news. He also writes frequently about inexplicable obsessions that include tamarisk, black-footed ferrets and tire fires. Booth also serves as the underpaid driver for four children, and plans to eventually hike every inch of Colorado.