The Suncor oil refinery in Commerce City is one of Colorado’s largest sources of air pollution. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)
A coalition of environmental and community groups is urging Colorado lawmakers to back a “must pass” air pollution bill, as the clock winds down on the legislative session and a host of powerful corporate interests quietly mobilize against it.
The House of Representatives passed House Bill 22-1244 on a 41-24 vote Friday, with all Democrats in favor and all Republicans opposed. The bill would impose new rules on polluters and establish a new state program to address the emission of “air toxics,” a class of pollutants that advocates say are under-regulated at the federal level.
“Some of our most disproportionately impacted communities, my neighbors, are breathing in Colorado’s most polluted air,” said bill sponsor Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, a Democrat from Denver, in a statement. “This bill improves the way we monitor air toxics in Colorado and takes a proactive approach to reduce these harmful emissions based on what is best for our health.”
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Following up on previous air toxics legislation passed in 2020 and 2021, HB-1244 aims to strengthen emissions reporting requirements for pollution sources, while directing the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to develop a new statewide monitoring program and convene a scientific advisory board to guide its new regulations.
The rules would apply to a class of 188 substances designated as “hazardous air pollutants” by the Environmental Protection Agency, many of which are emitted as a byproduct of a variety of industrial processes. Emissions of toxic chemicals like benzene and hydrogen cyanide, for example, have long caused concern for communities near the Suncor Energy oil refinery in Commerce City.
The HAP classification triggers some federal regulations, but not the more rigorous health-based emissions standards that the EPA applies to the six “criteria pollutants,” a group than includes ozone, particulate matter and carbon monoxide. Supporters of HB-1244 say that at least 15 states, including Texas and Kentucky, have taken steps to address air toxics in the absence of stricter federal rules.
“These are not greenhouse gases, these are not the EPA-regulated criteria pollutants,” State Rep. Chris Kennedy, a Democrat from Lakewood and a sponsor of HB-1244, said during a House floor debate on May 5. “They are the kinds of things that when they reach certain concentrations are likely to give people adverse health effects.”
The legislation would direct CDPHE staff to work with Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission to identify up to five “priority” pollutants by the end of 2024, and adopt health-based emissions standards the following year. The priority list would then be updated at least once every five years thereafter.
“Coloradans are concerned about the sad state of our air quality and expect legislative action to clean it up,” Kelly Nordini, CEO of environmental group Conservation Colorado, said in a statement. “A key step is passing a bill that requires monitoring air toxics, develops health-based standards, and then requires companies to use technology to cut pollution and it’s Conservation Colorado’s top priority.”
More than 50 corporations and industry groups have registered to lobby against HB-1244, according to disclosure reports filed with the Colorado Secretary of State’s office.
An inquiry to Suncor was returned by a representative of FTI Consulting, a major fossil-fuel industry communications firm, who declined to comment. Records show Suncor has also retained a team of lobbyists from powerhouse Denver law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, led by Doug Friednash, a Denver Post columnist and former chief of staff to then-Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Most of Colorado’s major electric and natural gas utilities have also lobbied against the bill, including Xcel Energy, Black Hills Energy and the Platte River Power Authority.
An Xcel spokesperson pointed to the company’s recent settlement agreement on coal plant retirements, saying that while that agreement prioritized “customer cost protections and service reliability,” HB-1244 “does not address these critical objectives.”
Debate over HB-1244 on the House floor last week featured the adoption of a flurry of amendments proposed by the bill’s sponsors, including several negotiated with Republican lawmakers like Rep. Matt Soper, who represents several coal-dependent communities on the Western Slope.
The amendments included a new exemption for the state’s remaining coal plants, all of which are scheduled to close by 2031, and language specifying that emissions controls must be both “technically and economically feasible.”
“I hope that what you’re seeing with all these amendments that we’ve run is that there has been a tremendous amount of stakeholding,” Kennedy told his colleagues on the House floor.
With the General Assembly set to adjourn on Wednesday and an array of powerful business groups opposed, however, HB-1244 could face an uphill battle for swift Senate passage. Following its final approval by the House on Friday, the bill was introduced in the Senate and assigned to the State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee.
“We heard from impacted community members in regards to this bill, and that’s, in fact, who brought this policy forward,” said Gonzales-Gutierrez. “HB-1244 did not come to us from business, but it did come to us from communities that have been impacted by hazardous pollutants for generations.”
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