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Jordan Champalou demonstrates a DeWalt electric string trimmer Dec. 1, 2022, near Sloans Lake. Champalou has been mowing lawns since age 10 and now maintains 4-5 residential properties per week using all electric lawn tools. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

All sales of gas-powered home lawn mowers, trimmers and leaf blowers would be banned in metro Denver beginning in 2025 to attack severe ozone pollution, according to draft policies circulating at the Regional Air Quality Council and targeted for a vote by statewide authorities later this year. 

The most likely proposals would also ban summer use of existing gas-powered lawn equipment by big institutional users such as schools or parks and maintenance crews beginning in 2025, and by commercial users a year after that. 

Emissions from gas-powered lawn equipment make up a surprisingly high portion of chemicals that bake into summer ozone under Colorado’s hot sun. California already has a sales ban, beginning in 2024. Various Colorado local governments have offered incentives to turn in gas equipment for voucher discounts to buy new electric gear, but a full sales ban and summer-use ban is a big trial balloon the RAQC is floating in early working group drafts. 

The RAQC said no formal vote will be taken until later in the spring, but draft policies are circulating in a working group, and the agency presented outlines of the idea in this month’s Air Quality Control Commission meeting. An even more rigorous option under consideration would begin the bans in 2024.

Colorado’s northern Front Range counties are in severe violation of EPA limits on lung-choking ozone, and the state needs to adopt policies that can make real cuts to measured ozone by at least 2026, when EPA demands for change get tougher, RAQC Executive Director Mike Silverstein said. 

The contribution from lawn equipment “is quite large,” Silverstein said. Front Range regulators are adding new rules to cut emissions from the oil and gas industry, the trucking industry and other high-polluting sectors, he noted. “And it makes sense to focus on another large category of emissions like the lawn and garden equipment.”

Kirsten Schatz, advocate for the Colorado Public Interest Research Group, or CoPIRG, speaks Dec. 1 near Sloan Lake in support of cleaner air quality through the restriction of sales of gas-powered landscaping equipment. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The EPA in 2008 set ozone health limits of 75 parts per billion, then revised it further downward in 2015 to 70 parts per billion. State planners have said lawn and garden equipment contributes 2.5 parts per billion to that total on an average day. It may seem small, but compared to the other slices of the total that Colorado has the power to control, lawn and garden equipment is a tantalizing target. 

Colorado’s ozone was trending downward for a while as cars got cleaner, coal-fired power plants were retired and other rules took effect. But in recent years, many metro area monitors are spiking into the 80s. 

Table showing general contribution to Front Range summertime ozone concentrations
This table shows why it’s been so difficult for the northern Front Range to cut its ozone production back below EPA limits. Our background ozone starts high, and the biggest places to cut elsewhere are partially walled off by special interests and consumer habits. (Regional Air Quality Council)

Then, just as the Air Quality Control Commission was about to finalize two EPA-required State Implementation Plans for both the 2008 and 2015 ozone standards, state regulators found they’d been calculating oil and gas contributions wrong. They had underestimated how much ozone-causing emissions come from drilling operations, so that every drilling permit issued in the late 2020s would weaken Colorado’s pledges in the implementation plans. The plans are a commitment to the EPA on how and when Colorado will come into compliance.

The commission put off final approval of one of the plans until late 2023, when staff could propose new ozone-cutting policies to stuff into the document. Silverstein and other Regional Air Quality Council leaders want action on lawn and garden equipment to be part of those late 2023 commission votes.

Lawn and garden equipment makes up 84% of small, off-road engines being run across the U.S., the regional council said. Another favored statistic: One hour of running a high-polluting gas leaf blower produces emissions equal to driving a gas car 1,100 miles, or to Denver from Los Angeles

Lawn and garden equipment may also be an appealing target because there is little organized opposition, compared to the powerful oil and gas trade associations, or chambers of commerce who oppose restrictions on commuters’ driving. The RAQC said it has been working on outreach to equipment manufacturers or any trade groups for landscape maintenance, but has not had much success. 

Environmental groups that have been pushing the state air quality commission for a faster crackdown on ozone emissions are supportive. 

“We want to live in a world where mowing your lawn, or maintaining your landscape, doesn’t mean spewing a bunch of harmful pollution into the air, or for that matter, driving your neighbors crazy with ear-splitting noise,” said Kirsten Schatz of CoPIRG, which has been involved in the working group on the issue at the RAQC. 

CoPIRG organized a media event in 2022 featuring clean electric lawn equipment at comparable prices to gas-powered equipment, even before available rebates. They also highlighted a small local contractor who is using all-electric equipment who had rigged battery-recharging solar panels on his truck roof. 

Electric prices are competitive with gas equipment except in the largest commercial ride-on categories, Schatz said. The current drafts of the proposed bans do not bar sales or use of the larger ride-on vehicles in the initial stages. 

A little-known fact of the billions in federal aid for electric vehicle tax credits, Schatz added, is that they can be used to lower the price of ride-on electric lawn tractors as well. 

Actual prices to the consumer will get better and better, clean air advocates say. The Colorado legislature is working on a bill providing a 30% rebate at the cash register, statewide, on electric lawn equipment. 

However tough the final recommendations turn out to be, Silverstein said, everyone in the working group wants to be clear that they’re avoiding a hit to mom and pop operators or the average homeowner. 

“We’re definitely not trying to target the high school kid that’s mowing lawns to get some spending cash,” Silverstein said. Besides, he said, the real savings in emissions comes from a changeover among the equipment operators who are using the machines all day, every day.

The regional council is also looking for federal or state money that could expand the vouchers for individual lawn and garden equipment buyers to small businesses in landscaping. That kind of support could take millions of dollars, Silverstein acknowledged.

The urgency to act in Colorado is building, he added. At the April meeting, air quality commissioners asked the RAQC for specific ideas it was serious about putting in the State Implementation Plans for a late 2023 vote. 

“If we’re going to make a real difference quickly,” Silverstein said, “we’ve got to have a rapid transition to electric.” 

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Michael Booth

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