Earlier this month, Gov. Jared Polis (D-CO) signed a bill into law that’s intended to decrease ozone pollution stemming from oil and gas production in Colorado and establish an interim legislative committee to investigate solutions to the poor air quality affecting parts of Colorado.

Environmental activists generally celebrated Polis signing the Protecting Communities from Air Pollution Act, even though the final version was severely weakened from the bill proposed in the Colorado House of Representatives earlier this year.

Alana Miller, Colorado policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, expressed why so many activists feel a pressing need to act on air quality issues.

“It has never been more urgent for Colorado to comprehensively take action on dangerous ozone pollution,” said Miller. “The impacts from our reliance on oil, gas, and other fossil fuels disproportionately harm communities whose voices are too often not at the table. The processes established in this bill are critical opportunities to center the needs of community members while identifying and planning bold actions to reduce air pollution.”

What made it into the bill?

The bill aims to limit ozone pollution originating from oil and gas activities.

Oil and gas production emits nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which create ozone when exposed to sunlight. Ozone can aggravate health issues such as asthma or emphysema and make the lungs more susceptible to infection, even in fully healthy people. This is notable in Colorado, home to some of the worst air quality in the country from year to year according to the EPA.

study published last month in the journal Environmental Research: Health reported that ozone from U.S. oil and gas production contributed to 7,500 excess deaths, 410,000 asthma attacks, and 2,200 new cases of childhood asthma across the U.S. in 2016, creating new costs of $77 billion per year in total for the patients affected.

A November analysis by the state determined that 45% of NOx and 41% of VOCs emitted through human causes in Colorado came from the oil and gas industry.

The final version of Colorado’s bill requires state oil and gas regulators to assess the collective air quality impact of fossil fuel operations and promises a rulemaking by April 2024 to define and continue progress on cumulative impacts. It also improved the process for assessing complaints about emissions made by concerned community members. According to an analysis released earlier this, year only six of 135 pollution events at Colorado oil and gas wells in 2022 were actually inspected by the state.

The legislative committee can meet up to six times during the 2023 interim and will examine the ozone problem in Colorado, explore additional ways to reduce ozone pollution, and identify potential reforms to the permitting process.

What got cut?

Some parts of the original bill were met with opposition from oil and gas lobbyists, state legislators, and, reportedly, members of the Polis administration. Some of the many aspects of the original bill that did not make it into the final version included:

  • A timeline for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to investigate citizen complaints within 30 days and come to a decision within 90 days
  • A requirement that civil penalties for pollution citation include public health, safety, welfare, the environment and wildlife and biological effects
  • A provision allowing the interim committee to propose five bills to be introduced in the 2024 legislative session
  • A provision allowing state regulators to deny permits for projects if they impede efforts to comply with the U.S. Clean Air Act

Portia Prescott, president of the Rocky Mountain NAACP, did not mince words when reacting to the final bill.

“Essentially this was NOT the bill the community deserves at all,” said Prescott. “Unfortunately, it’s all we can get right now given the tough opposition of the oil and gas industry and weak commitment from the Polis administration on advancing the right solutions to the ozone crisis for all communities.”

This bill was supposed to be introduced during the 2022 legislative session but was abandoned by its sponsor after warnings from the oil and gas industry that the plan — which industry representatives dubbed an “extinction-level event” — could devastate an industry already facing strict regulations. In 2022, the two largest oil companies in Colorado made record-breaking profits during a year in which the oil and gas industry as a whole saw record profits as well.

Reactions from the industry and the community vary

In a statement released by EarthJustice, an environmental advocacy group, community and conservation groups praised Polis for signing the legislation, but they emphasized the continued need for stronger action and the hope that the state will center and listen to impacted community voices.

“Moms are grateful that the Colorado legislature and Governor Polis understand that Colorado has a severe air pollution problem,” said Jen Clanahan, co-director of Mountain Mamas, in the statement. “Because of the threat posed to our children’s health by the air they breathe, moms are desperately looking to the interim committee to come up with solutions that truly address the problem. Since the Denver-Aurora metro area has been found to rank 6th worst in the nation for ozone pollution, they have a great deal of work ahead.”

Oil and gas industry representatives, such as Kait Schwartz, director of the American Petroleum Institute Colorado, criticized the bill, even in its scaled-back final form.

“Make no mistake: The special interests behind this measure remain focused on their longer-term goal of driving energy development out of Colorado by any means necessary, and it is incredibly disappointing that lawmakers are willing participants in such a malevolent undertaking,” said Schwartz in a statement to the Denver Gazette in May.

In his signing statement Polis shared that he believed this law will contribute toward his goal of improving air quality in Colorado but did mention two suggestions to the interim committee: 1) to focus on all sources of ozone, not just oil and gas, and 2) acknowledge the difficulty the Energy and Carbon Management Commission (formerly called the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission), which Polis said was under-resourced and under-staffed, might have in implementing new regulations.

“While oil and gas is a contributor to Colorado’s air quality challenges, I encourage the Committee to focus on all sources of ozone,” Polis said in his statement. “Policies and practices that regulate oil and gas are rarely the same as those governing industrial emissions, power plants, or the transportation sector. A thorough conversation must recognize all sources of emissions and evaluate, streamline, and improve the regulatory process for each.”

Earlier this year, Front Range air quality regulators announced data showing oil and gas drilling and fracking along the Front Range produce more NOx and VOCs than all vehicles in the Front Range combined.