E-bikes, electric school buses eyed in air-quality proposals ahead of 2022 ozone season

Summer smog along Colorado’s Front Range reached unhealthiest levels in over a decade in 2021

By: - March 31, 2022 12:37 pm

Smog shrouds Denver’s skyline behind Interstate 25 traffic on Aug. 18, 2021. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

One year after Colorado’s long-running battle with air pollution took another turn for the worse, Gov. Jared Polis joined Democratic lawmakers at the Capitol on Thursday to tout a package of new funding aimed at averting another smog-filled summer in 2022 and beyond.

“(This) is a package of bills that is a major step forward,” Polis told reporters at a press conference.

Colorado’s Front Range has struggled for years with ground-level ozone, a hazardous pollutant that can cause wide variety of negative health impacts, including respiratory issues like asthma, heart disease and other cardiovascular conditions. Ozone levels are generally highest in the summer months.


“It’s no secret that here in Colorado, our air is not as clean as it should be,” said state Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Democrat from Denver. “And too often, it’s my community — low-income folks, people of color — who pay the price.”

Ozone levels spiked as high as 102 parts per billion in the Denver metro area last summer, far above the Environmental Protection Agency’s health limit of 70 ppb and the highest levels the area had seen in over a decade. The EPA is expected to soon downgrade the region to a “severe” violator of health standards, triggering tougher emissions rules — though environmental groups have sued the agency, accusing it of dragging its feet.

Ozone is known as a “secondary” pollutant, since it forms in the air as a result of chemical reactions between sunlight and certain “precursors” like nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds. Those precursors can come from a wide variety of places — including out-of-state sources like Western wildfires and even pollution transported in the upper atmosphere from overseas — but research has shown that on the worst ozone days, local sources of production like gas-powered vehicles, oil and gas facilities and lawn equipment are largely to blame.

“Wherever it comes from, whatever the causes are, we need to solve it,” said Senate President Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat. “We need to do everything we can, and we can’t ignore it any longer.”

Senate Bill 22-193, sponsored by Fenberg and Gonzales and introduced Wednesday, would establish a $25 million grant program to fund “voluntary projects” aimed at cutting emissions in the industrial and manufacturing sector. It also includes measures to fund the acquisition of electric school buses, incentivize the retirement of older diesel trucks and create an e-bike program to be administered by the Colorado Energy Office.

Lawmakers also touted a bill introduced last week that would fund free public transit services during ozone season. Despite Polis’ hopes that state funding could mean “a period of solid summer months” of fare-free ridership, the plan met with resistance from officials at Denver’s Regional Transportation District, who expressed concerns about implementing the program amid a driver shortage and safety fears. Under the bill, free RTD ridership is expected to only last for 30 days in August.

“Let’s try it out,” said Sen. Faith Winter, a Democrat from Westminster. “We’ve seen it all over the country, and it’s increased ridership.”

Polis also spoke of the “transformative changes” to air-quality programs at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment contained in the 2022 state budget, which is currently being finalized by the Legislature. The Polis administration’s budget request included funding for more than 100 new employees in CDPHE’s Air Pollution Control Division, after years of complaints from environmental advocates and former employees that the agency lacked sufficient resources.

“We’ve come a long way in our pursuit of 100% renewable energy, and our effort to fight the impacts of climate change and improve air quality,” Polis said.

Environmental groups, however, have often clashed with Polis over climate and clean-air policies, urging the state to take a more aggressive approach to regulating and penalizing polluters. A delay in a proposed clean-trucks rule announced last month angered advocates again, while a measure to phase out the use of high-emitting lawn equipment was stripped from a climate bill after what its sponsor, Sen. Chris Hansen of Denver, told Colorado Public Radio was a “robust conversation” with the governor’s office.

“These measures will help clean up our air, reduce utility bills, cut greenhouse gas emissions, improve Coloradans’ health, expand mobility choices, and spur clean energy job creation,” Elise Jones, executive director for the Boulder-based Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, said in a statement Thursday. “We urge the legislature to support these bold investments and to go even further in advancing solutions to provide clean transportation choices and reduce pollution from heavy duty trucks and industrial sites that disproportionately burden public health and quality of life in nearby neighborhoods.”


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Chase Woodruff
Chase Woodruff

Reporter Chase Woodruff covers the environment, the economy and other stories for Colorado Newsline.