GUEST COLUMN: Improve air quality, but spare the economy | Opinion

A bipartisan coalition of political leaders has achieved significant environmental success over the past 50 years on issues ranging from the cleanup of facilities like Rocky Flats and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal to the designation of wilderness areas such as Spanish Peaks and James Peak. But perhaps the greatest environmental and public health success has been the improvement in Colorado’s air quality.

A Christian Science Monitor story in 2002 aptly described our air quality issues: [b]efore there was a Denver International Airport, a Colorado Rockies baseball team, or even the Denver Avalanche hockey team, the Mile High City was best known for smudged skies. Two decades ago, Denver was violating federal air-quality standards more than 200 days a year. Denver’s notorious “brown cloud” regularly shrouded the city, obscuring snow-topped mountains that crowned the horizon.

The Christian Science Monitor wrote the story at that time because Colorado was about to do something no other state had done before – after having been out of compliance with all federal health-based air quality standards, we were about to reverse that and obtain compliance with ALL of them. This was an amazing accomplishment, not only because it was a capstone achievement for public health, but also because it was a collaborative effort by both Republicans and Democrats and by both industry and environmentalists. It was a success story with its beginnings in the 1970s and finally achieved during my tenure as Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment during the administration of Governor Bill Owens, who made clean air a priority during his two terms in office.

The Denver Metro Area is once again facing air quality challenges from ozone, but as the state contemplates how to move forward it is important to first recognize that air quality is better now than it has been decades. Air quality in the Metro Area has not degraded, rather, the standard we are being measured against has become more stringent. The threshold of acceptable ozone was lowered in 2008 and again in 2015 and may be lowered again in 2022. Each time the standard is lowered the Denver Metro Area is at risk of failing the latest test, and consequently having to take steps to reduce emissions.

In addition to the tightening air quality standards, we are challenged by the changing nature of the problem. To show the status of our ground level ozone, the Regional Air Quality Council has released an emissions index, which is the basis for its future year projections. Based on this data, the state finds that emissions from light duty vehicles are at 5.7 parts per billion – approximately 7.3% of all contributions. Right behind that is the oil and gas industry, which contributes approximately 5.3 ppb – or just under 7%. Contrast this with what the state calls background sources – such as smoke generated from wildfires, and any pollution that blows eastward from California or China: the inventory lists this at 47.3 ppb – approximately 60% of our ground level ozone. Yet Colorado’s regulations only target the marginal contributors, limiting us to marginal reductions even if the regulations are successful.

Regulatory solutions should not be developed in a vacuum without recognizing the clear facts about contributing sources. Developing an air quality plan which ignores the massive contribution of ozone from outside sources that cannot be controlled risks significant economic displacement in Colorado that will not solve the problem. After spending significant time as a regulator at both the state and federal levels, it is clear to me that Colorado must act, and I believe that creativity and collaboration are necessary to arrive at enduring solutions that improve air quality without degrading our economy. Although Colorado missed an opportunity a couple of years ago for greater flexibility to address ozone, there are still pathways to success, but it will require the kind of effort that allowed us to bring Colorado in compliance with all air quality standards in 2002.

Achieving compliance with ozone standards will be challenging. First, as in 2002, the state needs to find a workable solution and resist the urge to put together a plan that fails to solve the ozone problem but places another economic burden on employers and citizens. This is all the more difficult because regulators will have to recognize that a significant amount of the state’s ozone is the result of sources that are not created by vehicles or industry. Second, regulators need to build consensus on next steps with all stakeholders – industry, environmental and political. Any plan will be better accepted by those who must implement it and live under it if they have a serious role in developing it, and that outreach needs to go beyond the normal stakeholder process. A regulatory approach that crams down incomplete or inequitable solutions will be unsuccessful.

There are no easy solutions available to address Colorado’s most recent air quality issues, which are created by pollution transported by out of state sources into Colorado. While there is an obligation to act, there is also an obligation to protect Colorado’s economy from regulatory actions that will not solve the problem.

Doug Benevento was administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 8 and EPA deputy administrator. He was previously environmental programs director and then executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. He is currently an attorney in Denver and also serves as the chairman of the Douglas County Board of Health.

Doug Benevento was administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 8 and EPA deputy administrator. He was previously environmental programs director and then executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. He is currently an attorney in Denver and also serves as the chairman of the Douglas County Board of Health.

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