Proposed ozone rules draw fire over potential economic effects

Kelly Sloan
Kelly Sloan

Kelly Sloan, The Business Times

Mesa County and four other Western Colorado counties could for the first time violate national ozone standards and suffer harm to their local economies as a result if proposed regulations are implemented, a new report warns.

The Center for Regulatory Solutions (CRS), a project of the Small Business Entrepreneurship Council, released the report and also said a bipartisan group of elected officials are joining with business leaders in protesting the proposed rules.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a change in the ground-level ozone standard from the 75 parts per billion to between 60 parts per billion and 65 parts per billion. The current standard was adopted in 2008.

Greg Bertelsen, director of energy and resources policy for the National Association of Manufacturers, said he agreed with the findings of the report and said the new ozone standard could be “challenging and costly for manufacturers.”

“We have made a lot of progress in reducing ozone in the last several years, and now we are starting to back up against natural levels,” Bertelsen said.

Because of the topography and geology of Colorado, “a lot of communities will be placed in non-attainment status because of things not in their control.”

Christian Reece, executive director of Club 20 based in Grand Junction, said the proposed ozone regulations could have effects throughout the region.

“Even though over the past few decades ozone pollution has actually been reduced, the imposition of these lower standards will place several West Slope communities out of attainment,” Reece said. “This will hamper economic development and add costs that will shatter local economies and, yet, will not provide significant reductions in ground-level ozone.”

According to the CRS report, non-attainment would result in the federal government stepping in to review local economic development initiatives. Under the Clean Air Act, any city or county that doesn’t meet National Ambient Air Quality Standards is classified as being in non-attainment.

“Once in non-attainment, local and state officials must answer to the federal government for permitting and planning decisions that could impact ozone levels,” the report stated. “State officials are required to develop an implementation plan that imposes new restrictions across the economy, especially the transportation, construction and energy industries. The EPA has veto power over these implementation plans. States that refuse to comply or have their implementation plans rejected face regulatory and financial sanctions imposed on them directly from the federal government.”

Bertelsen said the proposed ozone regulations go beyond just “exceptionally high compliance costs,” which he estimated have amounted to $815 million in Colorado over the last 23 years.

The CRS report specifically addressed transportation. Approval for transportation infrastructure projects could become difficult and lengthy, according to the authors. It cites the U.S. Conference of Mayors, National Association of Counties, National League of Cities and National Association of Regional Councils as warning, “The already confusing approval process for transportation projects —including roads, bridges, highways and public transit — will only get worse if the EPA tightens the ozone NAAQS any further.” The report goes on to state that delays and denials of federal funding or approval while analyzing projects for conformity to tighter NAAQS will add to traffic congestion, ironically exacerbating the problem of air pollution.

In a letter to the White House earlier this month on the issue, Kristi Pollard, executive director of the Grand Junction Economic Partnership wrote, “If Mesa County is put out of attainment because the standard is arbitrarily lowered, it will be extremely difficult for new manufacturing businesses to start up here or for existing businesses to expand. Simply put, these proposed rules could cost our region millions of dollars in lost opportunity, negate the hard work done to responsibly expand our economy and keep us mired in recession for years to come.”

The report also stated the EPA has faced increased criticism of the rules from a range of elected officials and organizations. State Sen. Ellen Roberts, a Republican from Durango, was quoted in the report in writing a letter to the White House.

“If the EPA carries out this ozone plan, Western Colorado will be placed at a terrible economic disadvantage,” Roberts wrote. “We have worked hard to responsibly care for our environment even as we grow and diversify our economy. Tightening the ozone standard any further just does not make sense when the existing standard, which is less than 10 years old, is working.”

State Rep. Dan Thurlow, a Republican from Grand Junction, said, “These last few months of President (Barack) Obama’s administration seem committed to establishing some sort of legacy around environmental issues. But in doing so, they are destroying many jobs in Western Colorado, whether it’s coal mining, oil and gas, manufacturing or others.”

Thurlow said the federal measures impose potential economic harm while contributing little to actual environmental protection or conservation. “The benefits are small at the margins.”

The CRS report also pointed to recent polls that show most Colorado voters are happy with their air quality and that public support for further federal environmental controls has wanned. The statewide poll, commissioned by the Colorado Association of Commerce & Industry and National Association of Manufacturers, found 76 percent of Colorado voters rated their local air quality as “excellent” or “good.” The poll also found that majorities of Colorado voters believed tighter federal environmental controls increased costs and made it harder on businesses. The poll found that majorities of Colorado voters believe the bigger problem for their local areas is “less economic growth and job opportunities caused by regulations (57 percent)” rather than “lower air quality caused by pollution (30 percent).”

“The results are pretty clear that a vast majority of Colorado citizens already view their air quality as very good and that they are more concerned with economic impacts of regulation,” Bertelsen said. This view lines up with manufacturers, he added. “We all recognize the need for regulation in society, but we want balance.”