The smoke from these fires contributes to ground-level ozone, a federally regulated air pollutant. Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tightened the ozone standard from 75 parts per billion (ppb) down to 70 ppb. The move was opposed by a broad, bipartisan coalition of local officials, business groups, labor unions, and state and federal lawmakers.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) even called for the tighter ozone standard to be suspended because it was set close to background levels. Background ozone comes from natural sources, like wildfires. Pollution that blows into the U.S. from other countries, like Mexico and China, also contributes to background ozone, according to the Western States Air Resources Council.
These background sources can represent as much as 70 percent of the ozone in the air, and they are “beyond our control,” Will Allison, director of Colorado’s Air Pollution Control Division, said in an interview. His team of air quality regulators is “keeping a close eye” on the recent wildfires and their impact on ozone.
“It just makes the issue of background ozone that much more important for us to understand,” Allison said. The EPA is changing some of its rules to account for wildfires and other “exceptional events,” Allison said. “But we believe more needs to be done.”
So why is the background ozone issue so vexing for air quality regulators? It’s because they are running out of cost-effective ways to cut ozone-forming emissions from human sources like cars, trucks, power plants, factories and other businesses big and small. In the early 1970s, Denver registered ozone readings above 200 ppb, and sometimes 300 ppb. Today, the Denver metro area’s average ozone readings are in the neighborhood of 75 and 80 ppb – a huge improvement.
In fact, in the early 2000s, The Christian Science Monitor newspaper reviewed the Mile High City’s air quality record and concluded “no other city has achieved a turnaround comparable to Denver’s.” Today, ozone levels have fallen about as low as they can go, according to University of Denver emissions expert Gary Bishop, meaning there’s almost zero chance the Front Range can ever meet the new 70 ppb standard. Even the EPA concedes the Front Range will be stuck in violation of the new standard until 2025 at least.
This is a big problem, because violation of the ozone standard – or “nonattainment” in regulatory speak – carries serious consequences.
Ozone-forming emissions come from a wide range of sources across every sector of the economy. Prolonged violation of the federal ozone standard triggers an enforcement process that requires state and local officials to impose new regulatory restrictions on these sources. The EPA has veto power over these state and local changes, giving the federal government a huge amount of influence over how the new regulations are written.
“EPA gets to regulate an enormous amount of economic activity,” Ray Gifford, former chairman of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, has warned. The Associated General Contractors of America – which represents the construction companies – says long-term nonattainment effectively imposes “a ban on the construction of new industrial or manufacturing facilities” and expanding existing operations becomes “very difficult.” For this reason, union officials who represent construction workers also opposed the tighter ozone standard.
Long-term nonattainment also gives EPA the power to impose new conditions on federal highway funds, or block those funds completely, through a process called “transportation conformity.” This process could “negatively affect job creation and critical economic development projects,” hinder efforts to reduce traffic congestion, and impose “financial and administrative burdens on local governments,” the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National Association of Counties warned last year, before the ozone standard was tightened to 70 ppb.
And here’s the big concern: Wildfires, out-of-state air pollution and other background sources may keep the Front Range and other parts of Colorado trapped in violation of the strict new federal ozone standard, no matter what new regulations are imposed.
“It’s important to us that we have the cleanest air possible,” says Allison, the state’s top air quality regulator. “Elevated ozone levels do have very real potential public health and environmental impacts.”
“That said, if our nonattainment status is due largely to background issues that we can’t reasonably address, that puts states in an untenable position,” he continued. “It could cause states and businesses … to incur costs that don’t really address the problem.”
Allison concluded: “We don’t want to throw money at something that is beyond our control.”
If you want to know how much pressure the EPA is under, consider the past statements from U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D) – who is running for reelection this year with the endorsement of the League of Conservation Voters, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club. When the tighter ozone standard was first proposed, Bennet said he was “deeply concerned” about wildfires and other background ozone sources pushing the state into violation, which is “the perfect example of applying the law but doing it in a way that doesn’t make sense on the ground.” Later, when the standard was announced, he said the EPA “must make implementation of these rules workable in Colorado by considering ways to account for the sources of ozone that do not originate in the state.”
But the strict new ozone standard is still a long way from “workable,” according to state-level environmental officials, and it still poses a threat to the Colorado economy. Unless you believe the EPA will change course on its own, a simple question remains: What are our elected officials doing about this?
Simon Lomax is an associate energy policy analyst with the Independence Institute and a consultant who advises pro-business groups. From 2004 to 2012, he was a news reporter covering energy and environmental policy in Washington, D.C. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.