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A view of the northern Front Range is seen from Lookout Mountain near Golden
A view of Denver and the northern Front Range is seen from Lookout Mountain near Golden on March 9, 2023. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Colorado House Democrats discarded some of the toughest provisions of an air pollution permitting overhaul before sending it on to the next committee, though the revised bill still faces fierce opposition from the oil and gas industry and scrutiny of its $11 million annual cost. 

Advocates for the bill, meant to attack severe health-threatening ozone levels on Colorado’s Front Range, removed some requirements that the state Air Pollution Control Division model the impacts of far more proposed oil and gas activity before granting a permit. The amendments, accepted during a House Energy and Environment Committee meeting last week, are meant to ward off opposition from Polis administration officials and oil and gas trade groups. 

They also removed some of the sweeping orders to state regulators to include controversial pollution-limiting policies in EPA-required improvement plans, such as limits on commuting miles driven by gasoline cars. The Polis administration and industry trade groups argue that a number of pollution-limiting policies have already been passed by state regulators, with more likely this year, and those should be given time to take effect. 

House Bill 1294 “will be amended to ensure a greater chance of passage in this year’s legislative session, while maintaining important measures to address Colorado’s dangerous air quality problem,” said a release from Earthjustice, speaking for a coalition of advocacy groups and local government officials who have helped draft the bill. “Groups urged support for the amended bill as an essential step, but underscored that environmental injustices in Colorado will continue until the state more comprehensively addresses Colorado’s failed permitting system.”

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The bill’s prime sponsors are Reps. Jenny Willford, Northglenn, and Jennifer Bacon, Denver, and Sens. Faith Winter of Westminster and Julie Gonzales of Denver, all Democrats. 

Still, the coalition said, the legislation retains important changes to how permits to pollute Colorado’s air would be reviewed and enforced in coming years. 

“This bill still contains important concrete actions that will cut harmful ozone pollution, as well as set us up for more action in the near future,” said Kirsten Schatz, clean air advocate for the consumer-oriented nonprofit CoPIRG. “Every pound of ozone-forming pollution that we can prevent from entering our air matters and taking this action now is a good step in the right direction.”

And the Colorado oil and gas industry signaled there is still enough worrisome material in the bill with a 21-page analysis of which portions to continue fighting. 

What remains of the bill makes it easier for citizens to complain about alleged violations of air pollution permits held by various corporations, and requires investigation of more complaints through the state Air Pollution Control Division. The bill also attempts to detail the “cumulative impacts” of new oil and gas exploration that the commission must consider in deciding to issue new permits. Environmental groups want to slow approval of any new activity that would worsen Colorado’s severe ozone problem, even if the one activity under consideration for a permit falls under EPA emission limits. 

The oil and gas industry argues that cumulative impact restrictions could make it impossible for state regulators to approve any new permits, essentially shutting down their industry in Colorado. 

“The requirement to compare the estimated incremental impacts of proposed oil and gas activity against past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future development of any kind is infeasible and unimplementable,” said an analysis shared by the American Petroleum Institute Colorado. “It would require operators to obtain information they simply do not have and cannot readily obtain about past and future private development by third parties.”

The bill also retains provisions requiring oil and gas drilling and production sites to use stationary engine equipment with electric motors connected to the clean power grid, instead of the traditional, high-polluting diesel models. Other provisions write into law Gov. Polis’ recent order to state regulatory agencies to cut ozone-creating nitrogen oxide by 50% by 2030. Recommendations for further air pollution permit reform would be up to a new interim legislative committee authorized by the bill. 

Ozone action was made even more urgent, the environmental coalition said, by news last week that the American Lung Association’s annual air pollution rankings put Denver as the sixth worst city in the nation for high ozone days, up one place from seventh. Fort Collins, also in the nine-county North Front Range ozone nonattainment area according to the EPA, was ranked 15th. Colorado Springs, which is not currently in the ozone problem area, joined the worst-25 list for the first time, at No. 20. 

The air permits bill is next scheduled for the appropriations committee Tuesday morning.

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Michael Booth is a Colorado Sun reporter covering health, health policy and the environment. Email: Twitter: @MBoothDenver