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Traffic on a freeway heading toward downtown Denver.
In this 2019 photo, southbound Interstate 25 traffic lanes bog down to a crawl at the interchange with Interstate 70 just north of downtown Denver. (David Zalubowski, AP Photo, File)

A coalition of Democratic legislators, environmental groups and local officials say they will introduce new air pollution permit mandates Wednesday that go further than Gov. Jared Polis’ recent directives to regulators. The draft bill sets up new battles over how far state government should go to combat stubborn Front Range ozone. 

Polis recently directed his two primary air quality agencies, the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and the health department’s Air Pollution Control Division, to cut ozone-causing nitrogen oxide by 50% by 2030. The cuts would have to come primarily from oil and gas drilling and production activity. 

The activist coalition has praised Polis’ move, but also says it doesn’t go far enough to tackle other sources of ozone pollution, and leaves in place a weak air pollution permitting process.

“This proposed legislation complements the governor’s recently announced actions to reduce NOx pollution from the oil and gas sector, but applies to a broader range of ozone-forming pollution sources and strengthens enforcement,” the coalition said, in announcing a bill will go forward. It is co-sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Bacon, D-Denver, Rep. Jenny Willford, D-Northglenn, and Sen. Faith Winter, D-Westminster. 

Winter, a prime sponsor, said she appreciated Polis’ ozone directive, but that changes also should be made to state law. Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission, for instance, has complained that they can’t take more steps to tackle high ozone levels because they don’t have the legal tools, Winter said.

The forthcoming bill aims to help address that. 

“We are in severe nonattainment,” Winter said. “My constituents wake up routinely during ozone season to alerts about how bad air quality is, which impacts people’s health. It causes heart disease, lung disease, cancer. We have to do better. And one of the ways that we need to do better is to address cumulative impacts of different (pollution) sources.”

The bill would require air pollution regulators to take into account the cumulative impact of all sources of emissions at new drilling sites, and run pollution modeling simulations for many categories of permits. 

It would also require the state to add new ozone-control measures into the state implementation plans required by the Environmental Protection Agency after years of the northern Front Range counties violating federal ozone limits. 

Those new ozone-control measures would include the controversial idea of cutting overall vehicle miles traveled by Front Range drivers. The Air Pollution Control Division previously dropped the so-called ETRP (employee trip reduction program) plan to require large employers to cut their workers’ commuting miles, under fierce attack from local chambers of commerce and other business interests. 

The new ozone-control measures would also include replacing smoke-spewing diesel oil and gas site equipment, such as drill rigs or generators for fracking, with clean electric versions connected to the grid. 

The proposed legislation also requires a new oil and gas drilling site to get a pollution permit from the health department’s Air Pollution Control Division before it can receive a drilling permit from the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. The bill would also “allow members of the public to initiate legal actions to enforce violations of air permits,” according to a summary of the proposal put forth by the coalition.


“Knowing that the gas wells behind my house may be out of compliance is bad enough, but hearing that the state is permitting even more without considering the compounding impacts is infuriating,” Carol Hawkins, an Ault resident and member of the nonprofit Colorado Rising, said in a statement announcing the bill was on the way. “We need common sense reforms to protect our neighborhoods now.”

“As a pediatrician, I see firsthand in my clinic the impacts of our state’s poor air quality, especially on high ozone days which have grown too frequent in Colorado’s increasingly hot summer months. I’m treating more children with asthma attacks, and it’s heartbreaking to see them afraid of not being able to breathe,” said Dr. Sheela Mahnke, a Thornton pediatrician and Healthy Air and Water Colorado advocate. 

The EPA has announced that Colorado’s nine northern Front Range counties are in “severe” violation of ozone caps set in 2008, and are also violating even tighter ozone caps imposed in 2015. 

Polis announced in March that he wanted the regulatory agencies to do more to cut nitrogen oxide emissions out of the oil and gas production process. Nitrogen oxide combines with volatile organic compounds, wildfire smoke and other substances and bakes into damaging ozone under Colorado’s hot summer sun. 

Environmental groups and a group of local elected officials said they believed Polis’ directive in March was in response to talk of their draft air pollution bill language, which placed detailed requirements on state agencies in reforming the permit process. They changed some aspects of the bill drafts that were circulating among interested parties, but left in some agency requirements that could prompt more negotiations with Polis’ staff. They will talk later this week, said Rebecca Curry, Colorado policy counsel with Earthjustice.

The oil and gas industry objected in particular to draft language that the commissioners had to “prevent” cumulative impacts from drilling, which the industry said would halt all oil exploration in Colorado, Curry said. The coalition agreed to soften the language of that measure to requiring the commissioners to assess and mitigate any cumulative impacts from a permit request.

The bill is needed, on top of Polis’ directives, Curry said, because Colorado’s poor air quality requires “solutions that get to the underlying causes, which are our permitting schemes and how we’re bringing new sources online. We can reduce all we want, but if we’re still permitting new sources and bringing new emissions online through business as usual, then the real benefit of reduction is questionable.”

Rep. Willford, who will also be a lead sponsor of the bill, said the aim is to move faster than the actions announced by the governor while giving Coloradans more input on the permitting process. 

“This bill will enable folks to be heard and to be part of the process when reviewing complaints and when considering future permitting,” Wilford said.

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...

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....