The Air Quality Control Commission has declined to push for speeding up state plans to attack ozone and greenhouse gas pollution, despite another report from the Environmental Protection Agency that Colorado is falling behind on its own mandates.
Environmental groups and local officials demanded that the governor-appointed commission add new ozone and greenhouse gas regulations to get Colorado back on track. But the commission listened to updates from state agencies last week and avoided reconvening a strategy subcommittee that could recommend faster-acting policies.
“We have a process to get to a plan,” said Commissioner Elise Jones, usually the fiercest critic of the pace of state air pollution policy. “I feel much better,” Jones said, after hearing state regulators list policy votes planned for 2022 and 2023 and a promise of new models showing the pollution cuts that various rules would deliver.
The AQCC had passed a resolution in 2020 saying that if emissions results showed Colorado getting off track of the goals, it would consider new actions to close the gap. Jones said Monday that new modeling of additional policy proposals’ impacts will allow the AQCC to get tougher actions on the vote calendar for 2023, beyond those already scheduled.
A coalition that had pressed for faster action blasted what they see as the AQCC’s passive approach.
“No one from the Air Pollution Control Division, the Colorado Energy Office or elsewhere has answered the question of how they might meet 2025 emission reductions required by Colorado law,” said Chandler Green, a spokesperson for the Environmental Defense Fund and the broad coalition. The coalition wants the AQCC to consider new limits on oil and gas drilling and production, strategies for reducing miles driven by fossil fuel-powered vehicles, and an even faster schedule for retiring fossil fuel electricity plants.
The environmental coalition was hoping a new critical report from the EPA might give their arguments momentum at the AQCC’s monthly meeting.
The EPA’s state-by-state assessment of greenhouse emissions last year shows Colorado losing ground, similar to what state regulators reported to the AQCC earlier this year.
Major industrial emitters like power plants, refineries and cement producers in Colorado produced 42 million tons of greenhouse gases in 2021, up 5% from 40 million tons in 2020, the EPA’s tracker reported.
All it took for Colorado to see that setback to its greenhouse gas reduction was for the heavily polluting Comanche Generating Station to come back online.
“The grand champion worst polluter was the Comanche Power Plant near Pueblo at nearly 8 million tons of CO2, way up from its 2020 total of about 4.5 million tons,” said Ted Zukoski, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity in Denver. “The Craig Power Plant in Moffat County was the second worst CO2 polluter at 7.8 million tons, up slightly from 2020.”
Coal-fired Comanche was offline much of the time in 2020 because of major operating problems, and ran more steadily in 2021.
A resurgence in fossil fuel electricity in 2021 and a boost in vehicle miles traveled also contributed to the state’s own accounting of falling behind on greenhouse gas reductions by 2025 and 2030, dates with mandatory cuts put in place by state lawmakers. State law requires a drop in overall greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 benchmark levels of 26% by 2025 and 50% by 2030.
Yet the state’s latest inventory update showed Colorado will exceed those limits by 11.4 million tons of pollution in 2025, “even under optimistic estimates of what current policies and regulations will deliver,” the environmental coalition told the AQCC. The coalition includes 13 groups, among them Western Resource Advocates, Sierra Club of Colorado, Protegete, 350 Colorado and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
By the state’s count, the electricity generation and transportation sectors of the economy each put out 8 million tons of carbon dioxide above what the state had projected for 2021, the coalition noted. They also note that carbon dioxide emissions are cumulative, with all the excess between now and 2025 adding to atmospheric totals that have already pushed up average temperatures in Colorado and the West.
A slate of local officials and activists implored the AQCC to act faster on both ozone and greenhouse gases during the public comments preceding the monthly meeting. The commission also heard the annual ozone update from state air pollution regulators concluding that Colorado continued to violate EPA limits on the respiratory toxin and cannot meet stricter regulations by a 2024 deadline.
“While we may not know all the acronyms, we know how our lungs feel; and we know about making the decision between going to work or getting lung damage,” said state Rep. Jennifer Bacon, a Denver Democrat who said she was speaking for the House Black and Latino caucuses.
High levels of lung-attacking ozone have “become a defining feature of Colorado’s Front Range,” said Tonya Briggs of the Lafayette City Council. The state is “putting residents in harm’s way” while waiting for the EPA to force Colorado into compliance, Briggs said. “My residents can’t wait another day.”
State officials reminded the AQCC commissioners of long-planned policy changes that will come into play in the remainder of 2022 and throughout 2023. Those include: An Advanced Clean Trucks rule modeled on California, requiring cleaner energy models to be sold into Colorado’s large trucking fleets; rules cutting fossil fuels used to heat or cool air and water in buildings; “intensity” rules limiting oil and gas production emissions; and a second round of rules for large industrial polluters.