On Monday, Colorado air quality regulators released the latest draft of rules intended to hold polluters across the state accountable for releasing harmful toxins into the air. Environmental activists worry that communities facing the greatest threat — where many high-polluting facilities exist — might be unduly harmed by allowances in the rules for companies to shift greenhouse gas emission reductions to other facilities they own.

The newest draft of these rules, the Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Energy Management for Manufacturing Phase 2 (GEMM2) can be read here, and more information about how the public can get involved can be found on the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s website here.

The release of the draft rules is one part of the implementation process of the Environmental Justice Disproportionate Impacted Community Act, signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis (D-CO) in 2021. The legislation was intended to curb the damage pollution has on disproportionally impacted communities in Colorado by setting stricter standards on air pollution and increasing the involvement of community members in state regulatory processes. The act defines “disproportionally impacted communities” as:

  • A community that is in a census block group where the proportion of households that are low income, that identify as a minority, or that are housing cost-burdened is greater than 40%; or
  • Any other community as identified or approved by a state agency, if the community: Has a history of environmental racism perpetuated through redlining, anti-Indigenous, anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic, or anti-Black laws; or is one where multiple factors may act cumulatively to affect health and the environment and contribute to persistent disparities.

The bill was the result of months of tense negotiations by Polis and members of the 2021 General Assembly. When signing it, Polis included an executive order that prohibited Colorado from installing an economy-wide cap-and-trade system, a market-based approach to greenhouse gas emissions reduction.

Last week, ahead of the release of Monday’s draft rules, a coalition of 23 environmental groups representing over 100,000 Coloradans addressed a letter to the members of Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission expressing community concerns over the direction of the GEMM2 rulemaking.

The groups wrote in the letter that loopholes in the rules could undermine the original intent of the Environmental Justice Act and that concerns from members of the oil and gas industry were prioritized over concerns raised by community groups.

Specifically, the groups, which include environmental advocacy organizations from across the state, including Conservation Colorado, 350 Colorado, Colorado Sierra Club, Cultivando, ProgressNow Colorado, and more, called attention to provisions in the bill that would allow companies to count offsite emission reductions as reducing emissions at the actual pollution site.

For example, one of the facilities mentioned in the draft rules is the Commerce City Suncor refinery, a troubled facility that’s well-known for its pollution to the surrounding community and its run-ins with state regulatory agencies over emissions. North Denver and Commerce City, the communities surrounding the refinery, are disproportionally impacted by Suncor’s pollution. That impact is compounded by other environmental issues in the area, according to the state of Colorado’s environmental justice mapping tool.

The red star represents the Suncor refinery. Map showing communities most burdened by environmental injustice overlaid with Colorado’s database of disproportionately impacted communities.

The rules call for Suncor to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 by 13% of what they were in 2015. Environmental groups argue that, under the draft rules, if Suncor owned other facilities elsewhere in Colorado, it could reduce emissions at those facilities it already owns and then apply those cuts to its overall goal – without needing to reduce the full required amount of emissions at the Commerce City Refinery.

“The proposed rules are a stark reminder of the historical pattern that the Environmental Justice Act was enacted to address — industry profits being prioritized over the health of disproportionately impacted communities (DICs), perpetuating a cycle of pollution and injustice”, said Lorena Gonzalez, communities & justice manager with Conservation Colorado. “The rules open the floodgates for the industry to offset their emissions and avoid necessary reductions. By granting leniency and exemptions, the proposed rules fail to address the immediate needs of our communities and turn a blind eye to the urgent calls for environmental justice. We call on the state to enact effective enforcement mechanisms, meaningful penalties, and guaranteed reductions and benefits in DICs which are crucial to restoring faith in state processes and holding polluters accountable.”

A list of Colorado facilities required to cut their greenhouse gas emissions.

Heidi Leathwood, climate policy analyst with 350 Colorado, said that the group’s main hope is for facilities to be required to do all their emissions reduction projects onsite to protect the surrounding community. In a statement accompanying the letter, Leathwood acknowledged the work done by the state agency commissioners to hold space for community members during this process but indicated a desire to see them actually take their concerns into account.

“Reaching out to stakeholders and allowing them to express their concerns and wishes is only half of the equation. What is missing is the input being truly heard and acted upon,” Leathwood said. “As usual, industry said making emissions cuts would be too hard. But they should not be given a pass. The proposed rules will fulfill neither the letter nor the spirit of the Environmental Justice Act and so we ask that they be revised to achieve the greenhouse gas and pollution reductions required by law.”

In the letter, the groups ask for the promises made in the Colorado Environmental Justice Act of 2021 to be fulfilled by:

  • A rule that reduces greenhouse gas emissions from the industrial and manufacturing sector by 20% by 2030,
  • Trading should not be available to sources that are habitual violators of state and federal air quality requirements and/or are located in disproportionally impacted communities, and
  • Effective enforcement and penalties to address communities’ mistrust of the state resulting from the pattern of facilities polluting, paying fines, and continuing to pollute.

We understand that redirecting a dominant energy infrastructure appears overwhelming, even intimidating, but the science is clear and pollution can no longer be tolerated as an acceptable by-product of doing business. We must adapt,” said Christine Canaly, director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council. “The status quo way of thinking does not serve our well-being. Strong leadership is required for this change to occur, meaning to embrace opportunities that prioritize a healthier quality of life. Listen, then act. Community groups are carrying the political will to make this a reality.  Being accountable and responsive are required now more than ever. Be courageous.”

This isn’t the first time this year in Colorado environmental justice rules have upset community members. In May, the Air Quality Control Commission enacted new rules that put more stringent air-quality monitoring in place for areas of the state where people of color and low-income residents live near big polluters. But community members felt their feedback was not implemented in the final rules.

Air quality concerns are a pressing issue in Colorado. On Monday, the Environmental Protection Agency was sued again by Colorado environmental groups over the state’s ozone pollution violations. In March, during another air quality rulemaking session environmentalists were flabbergasted that oil and gas companies weren’t required to directly measure their air pollution.

Multiple studies in the U.S. have shown that racial and ethnic minorities and lower-income groups are at higher risk of premature death from exposure to air pollution than other population and income groups. It’s also been shown that there are disparities in exposure to air pollution among these groups.

Polis has championed his greenhouse gas emissions reduction roadmap as the way to achieve his goal of a 100% reduction of emissions by 2050 and signed a slate of laws after the conclusion of this year’s state legislative session aimed to equitably reduce climate emissions.