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EPA mandate means Coloradans could pay more at the pump

Downgraded air quality on the Front Range mandates the use of reformulated gas by 2024
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Posted at 9:45 PM, Nov 09, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-10 12:27:19-05

A new mandate from the Environmental Protection Agency to improve air quality means Coloradans likely will be paying more for gasoline in the summer of 2024.

Despite the state’s sunshine and blue skies, Colorado’s Front Range has some of the worst air quality in the country. Recently, the EPA reclassified the ozone status in the area to “severe,” which brings with it federal mandates that include a cleaner type of gasoline called reformulated gas.

This gasoline is known to help reduce emissions, but also comes with a higher price at the pump due to additional processing.

Gov. Jared Polis is opposed to the use of reformulated gas in Colorado and has called it a “counterproductive requirement.”

“That’s something that we don’t think is helpful,” he said during an interview prior to the election. “We would like to avoid that because the data shows it might make a teeny improvement, but it’s not worth the higher costs for Coloradans.”

The Polis administration, however, has prioritized climate change, and in 2019, asked the EPA to downgrade the state’s air quality from “moderate” to “serious.” His administration chose not to renew waivers that granted exemptions from federal air quality standards, specifically for out-of-state emissions.

Since then, the state’s air quality took a turn for the worse in 2021.

Data provided by the Regional Air Quality Council showed that Colorado had its worst ozone year on record last year, surpassing federal air quality standards on 67 days. That was more than 2019 and 2020 combined. So far, the state has exceeded air quality standards in 35 days in 2022, through Oct. 3.

The state attributes the 2021 spike to a bad wildfire season in Colorado and across the country.

Polis wrote a letter to the EPA earlier this year threatening to sue over reformulated gas. The EPA replied, stating it would work with the state to explore any flexibility in the Clean Air Act. But it also made clear that there is no getting out of the mandate to sell reformulated gas in Denver and eight surrounding counties.

The EPA also noted that reformulated gas should only cost 3 cents more per gallon, but that figure is in dispute.

Grier Bailey, executive director of the Colorado Wyoming Petroleum Marketers Association, disagrees with that figure, and his organization estimates that reformulated gas could add 25 cents to 50 cents per gallon of gas. A federal study last year showed the added cost was 36 cents per gallon.

Bailey also opposes its use in Colorado for financial reasons.

“What we’re talking about is a structural shift where people are going to have to make choices between gallons of milk, boxes of cereal and being able to get to work,” Bailey said. “Reformulated gasoline represents one of the most costly strategies that’s ever been considered.”

Bailey added that the Clean Air Act hasn’t been updated in roughly 30 years and feels that some of the solutions, such as reformulated gas, are outdated.

“I think the Clean Air Act needs a good cleaning,” he said.

Yet, there are some who feel that Colorado needs to improve its air quality and more action is required.

“I feel like the state and the governor, they’ve done a lot, but they haven’t done enough,” said Katherine Goff, a Northglenn city councilwoman and part of the Colorado Communities for Climate Action, a coalition of 40 local governments. “We need to do something. And if what that is is the reformulated gas, then that’s what we have to do.”

The additional processing needed to make reformulated gas is what drives up the cost, according to Colorado School Mines professor John Jechura. He also believes that one of the biggest challenges is the state’s fuel market.

“There’s not a lot of refineries in this area. So we are looking to try to ship gasoline up from, say, the Gulf Coast, which makes sense, except now we’re paying for transportation costs, and so that drives cost up,” Jochura said.

Suncor is the only major refinery in Colorado. Representatives from the business say Suncor is already working on a $36 million project to be able to sell reformulated gas.

In a statement, Suncor said, “The project has been approved by CDPHE, and is not expected to impact the refinery’s existing production capacity.  Suncor will continue to supply all our customers with the specific fuels required.”

It also stated that based on analysis conducted by the Colorado Regional Air Quality Council, the use of reformulated gas will reduce emissions by more than 200 tons per year.

The state projects efforts to reduce pollution from the oil and gas industry will cut down on emissions by 12,500 tons per year.

Denver7 Chief Meteorologist Mike Nelson said the air pollution problem extends beyond this state and the RAQC estimates out-of-state pollution accounts for up to 60% of the Front Range’s ozone levels.

“Air pollution doesn’t know any international or national boundaries, and so it will flow with the wind patterns,” he said. “So anything that is put into the atmosphere in California can drift here under the right circumstances.”

Also, while car exhaust is still a big contributor to the ozone levels, Colorado’s geography can make air pollution worse.

“We have mountains that surround us on, really, two and a half sides to the west and the south, and that can trap the pollutants into the South Platte Valley in the Denver area,” Nelson said.

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