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In this Wednesday, March 6, 2019, file photograph, the skyline is shrouded as pollution fills the air in Denver. Photo by David Zalubowski / AP Images
Environment

What, Exactly, Is Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission Doing?

With wildfire smoke choking Denver, now seems like as good a time as any to check in on the governmental body charged with cleaning Colorado’s skies.

Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission’s (AQCC) purpose is—to put it as simply and vaguely as possible—to adopt regulations that clean Centennial State skies. The AQCC’s mission became more defined in 2019, when the General Assembly passed the Climate Action Plan to Reduce Pollution, ambitious legislation that mandates that the state lower its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent by 2025, 50 percent by 2030, and 90 percent by 2050 (based on statewide greenhouse gas emissions in 2005).

With Denver’s recent air quality rivaling Chernobyl’s, we decided to check in on the commission’s progress toward meeting those goals.

What does the AQCC do?

The commission is appointed by the governor and authorized by the General Assembly. Its nine members range from physicians, such as Dr. Tony Gerber, director of pulmonary research at National Jewish Health, to oil and gas professionals, like Curtis Rueter of Noble Energy.

It is not the commission’s job to come up with regulations. Typically, proposals come from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Air Pollution Control Division (though private organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund [EDF] can, and do, propose rules), whose policy and planning program serves as the research arm of the AQCC. The division’s experts essentially dream up strategies to reduce emissions and greenhouse gases and take those ideas to stakeholders—like the businesses who would be impacted by the rules—to hammer out the details.

“And then once the division feels like it has a proposal that’s ready to bring in front of the Air Quality Control Commission,” says Jeremy Neustifter, the AQCC’s policy advisor and acting administrator, “they request a hearing.” If the AQCC grants the hearing, it begins a multi-month pre-hearing evaluation process in which the public is invited to participate. The commission’s members evaluate proposals during their monthly meeting and then announce their judgment.

And you thought becoming a bill was a pain.

What has the AQCC done since 2019 to hit those ambitious pollution-reduction marks?

Since 2019, the commission has adopted plenty of regulations. Neustifter says the most attention-grabbing are numbers three, seven, 20 and 22. Respectively, they define permitting and fees regulation for stationary sources of air pollution, such as power plants and oil and gas operations; the major regulation for ozone with requirements for oil and gas emission; zero- and low-emission vehicle regulation; and greenhouse gas-specific regulation.

“Not enough,” Pam Kiely, associate vice president of U.S. climate at the EDF, wrote in an email. “Given that the West is on fire and people all across Colorado are struggling with really significant air quality concerns that are exacerbated by climate change, we are not even remotely where we need to be in terms of sounding the alarm and stepping up to do the hard job of regulating the sources of pollution that are causing the problem.”

How far away is Colorado from hitting its pollution-reduction goals?

Pretty far. Like, Denver-to-Durango far.

“While Colorado is required to reduce statewide emissions 26 percent by 2025 and 50 percent by 2030, the state is projected to achieve only a 13 percent reduction in 2025 and a 24 percent reduction in 2030,” says Kiely.

“So far, all actions at the AQCC since 2019—including rules designed to limit hydrofluorocarbons, accelerate zero-emission vehicle adoption, address regional haze, and reduce oil and gas methane emissions—are only expected to reduce emissions by roughly one million metric tons of CO2-equivalent (MMT CO2e) in 2025 and 9 MMT CO2e in 2030—leaving an immense gap of 18 MMT CO2e in 2025 and 35 MMT CO2e in 2030.”

Make that, Denver-to-Durango-after-a-mudslide-in-Glenwood-Canyon far.

What’s on the AQCC’s docket in the future?

The commission had been scheduled to consider the Employee Traffic Reduction Program during its next meeting, on August 18 and 19. Traffic is the biggest producer of carbon emission in Colorado. The ETRP—a main component of Gov. Jared Polis’ recent Colorado Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap, which purported to outline how the state could hit its climate targets—would have required large employers in the Denver metro (those with more than 100 employees) to institute strategies for lowering the number of workers who commuted in single-rider vehicles.

But in July, the AQCC took it off its August docket based on the APCD’s recommendation. The business community, which was largely against the program, cheered the decision. “This development is welcome news for both businesses and the Coloradans they employ,” Katie Wolf, director of state governmental affairs for the Colorado Chamber, said in a statement. “The original ETRP proposal raised serious concerns about feasibility and overreach, especially as we look towards an economic recovery following the pandemic. It also would have unfairly disadvantaged hardworking Coloradans with unique commuting needs, from working moms to essential workers. We look forward to working with the commission to find balanced, practical solutions to improving our air without having a detrimental impact on employees and businesses.”

The APCD’s motion read, according to Colorado Newsline, “After extensive outreach and engagement with a diverse range of stakeholders, the Division now withdraws its support and proposals for a formal ETRP rule and instead will focus on opportunities presented through a voluntary program.”

While the AQCC is planning to take up more emissions-related rules this fall, each sunset that passes without added regulation is another opportunity gone up in smoke, says Kiely. “They need a plan to regulate climate pollution. Every day that goes by that they don’t start to put us on a diet with respect to our pollution is one another ton of pollution in the atmosphere is going to exacerbate global warming impacts down the road.”

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