New Senate energy panel opens the door to bipartisan ozone solutions

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After keeping their one-seat majority in the Colorado State Senate, Republicans have announced a new committee will be formed to tackle energy and environmental issues. Democrats have reacted cautiously thus far, probably because they proposed a similar committee themselves before the election.

But conflict on the new panel – to be called Select Committee on Energy and the Environment – is almost inevitable. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course. There are major disagreements over energy and environmental policy in Colorado politics and those different viewpoints can and should be debated by our elected officials.

But if the members of the new committee are also looking for areas of agreement, there’s at least one issue they could jump into immediately with the potential for strong bipartisan cooperation: The federal government’s overreaching air quality standard for ozone.

icon_2016_report_commJust over a year ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tightened the federal ozone standard from 75 parts per billion down to 70 ppb. It was a move opposed by state and local officials across the country, business groups and organized labor. That’s because just about every sector of the economy has sources that produce ozone-forming emissions, including cars, trucks, power plants and businesses big and small. After decades of ratcheting down federal air quality standards, cost-effective emission reductions are harder and harder to come by.

That puts state and local officials in a terrible bind. Persistent violation of the ozone standard triggers an enforcement process that requires state and local officials to impose new regulatory restrictions across the economy. The EPA has veto power over these state and local changes, and as former chairman of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission Ray Gifford has warned, the federal agency effectively becomes “the planning commission, the zoning commission and the state permitting agency all rolled into one.”

This is a much bigger problem in Colorado than some other states. The latest research shows most of the ozone in the air above the Denver metropolitan area doesn’t come from here. Instead, most of our ozone – currently in the neighborhood of 75 to 80 ppb – comes from sources we can’t control.

This “background ozone” drifts into the country from other countries like Mexico and China and is also generated by natural sources like wildfires. That leaves “very little room” between background ozone levels and violation of the federal standard, according to a recent study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado.

In other words, Colorado faces federal punishment for air pollution we didn’t cause. That’s inherently unfair, but it also creates a tremendous opportunity for bipartisanship on the newly formed energy committee.

Democrats and Republicans in Colorado already agree the EPA, under President Obama, has gone too far with the new federal ozone standard. “I think it would be a great idea if they suspended the standard,” Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) said in April. A few weeks before that, Republican State Senator Jerry Sonnenberg issued a similar call: “I have always opposed the EPA’s strict new ozone standard because of the control it will give federal bureaucrats over basic planning decisions here in Colorado. The new limit of 70 parts per billion is completely unrealistic.”

Democratic State Senator Cheri Jahn has similarly warned that the EPA is “setting us up to fail.” Last year, before the EPA’s decision to impose the 70 ppb standard, the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation, and the Colorado Competitive Council made a similar plea: “We believe that the economic growth of Colorado is threatened by the EPA’s proposal to lower the ozone standard. Consequently, we request that the EPA retain the current 75 ppb ozone standard.” Even U.S. Sen Michael Bennet (D) said he was “deeply concerned.”

The new energy committee in the Colorado State Senate could bring together all these voices, from across the political spectrum, to develop solutions to this problem. Their work would feed directly into the national debate over the federal ozone standard and other efforts to reform the way EPA mandates are proposed and enforced.

Even before Republicans won the White House and defended their majorities in Congress, there was growing – and bipartisan – momentum for this kind of regulatory reform. But the incoming Trump administration and federal lawmakers need to hear directly from state and local officials about what isn’t working and the best ways to fix those problems.

In this process, the new energy committee in the state Senate could certainly play a big role. Taking on the ozone issue, which concerns so many Democrats as well as Republicans, might be the perfect place to start.

Simon Lomax is an associate energy policy analyst with the Independence Institute and a consultant who advises pro-business groups. From 2004 to 2012, he was a news reporter covering energy and environmental policy in Washington, D.C. Contact him at simon@i2i.org.

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