The Environmental Protection Agency for the first time is proposing a measure that would force four Western states to reduce their harmful emissions because of the impact they’re having on air quality in neighboring states — including Colorado.

If approved, Utah, Wyoming and Nevada would be required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and industrial manufacturing sites, while California would need to cut emissions from certain industries.

National modeling shows those states’ emissions are blowing across the West and into metro Denver, adding to the already bad ground-level ozone pollution.

The move would help Colorado because the EPA recently announced plans to downgrade Denver and the northern Front Range to “severe” violators of federal ozone standards, which would mean more stringent emissions limits for industries and higher gas prices for motorists.

The EPA unveiled earlier this month its plan to include 26 states in an update of the agency’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, also known as the “Good Neighbor Rule,” because those states are failing to reduce harmful downwind emissions on their own.

The federal agency estimates that forcing those states to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions at power plants and industrial sites would, by 2026, improve the health of more than a million Americans who suffer from asthma, including children who miss school because of smog-related asthma attacks, according to an overview of the proposal on the EPA’s website.

California, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming are four of the 26 states included in the new proposal, and, before this plan was released, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas were as far west as the Good Neighbor Rule had ever been implemented.

The EPA is accepting public comments and then will review those before finalizing the plan. The goal is to make it go into effect by 2026.

Environmental groups support the proposal, saying it will reduce smog, improve people’s health, help plant life and slow the impact of climate change.

“There’s a lot to like in this proposal,” said Kathleen Riley, an associate attorney for EarthJustice. “It’s a positive step to reduce interstate ozone and ozone pollution.”

But there is resistance within the states on the list.

Shortly after the EPA announced its intentions, Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon accused the EPA of targeting energy-producing states.

“This proposed rule specifically targets Western energy-producing states and is not an all-of-the-above solution,” Gordon said in a statement provided to The Denver Post. “Instead, it will harm states like Wyoming who meet ozone standards and benefit more populous states that use our energy but do not meet their own ozone standards.”

Ashley Sumner, a spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, said her agency is reviewing the proposed rule and will submit comments to the EPA. She did not say what position the department will take.

Kristina Barker, The New York Times

A coal train passes a drilling rig north of Douglas, Wyoming., Aug. 29, 2018. The EPA has proposed implementing its Good Neighbor Rule, which would place tighter regulations on power plants and other sources of air pollution in Wyoming, Utah, California and Nevada in an effort to lower air pollution levels in states downwind from them, including Colorado.

Expanding into the West

The Good Neighbor Rule is part of the federal Clean Air Act and it allows the EPA to get involved when states fail to consider how their bad air emissions impact their neighbors downwind.

For years, the federal agency has enforced the rule on the East Coast, where states are closer together and it has been easier to measure how greenhouse gases flow, said Carl Daly, acting director of the air and radiation division for the EPA’s Region 8 in Denver.

But the EPA expanded its national air pattern modeling to track how nitrogen oxide emissions travel and impact downwind states, and that modeling showed emissions blowing from California, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming worsened Colorado’s air quality, Daly said.

The four states contributed more than 1% of the ground-level ozone pollution in Colorado, which hit the threshold for enacting the Good Neighbor Rule.

The EPA requires states to submit plans that show how they will meet the demands of the Clean Air Act, and that includes making plans to curb emissions that affect other states.

“Right now, the plans we’ve got from Utah and Wyoming don’t have any controls contemplated to help Denver out,” said Daly, who as a Region 8 administrator will be involved directly with those state’s plans.

Once the EPA finalizes the cross-state pollution rule’s expansion to the West, the agency would be able to step in and enforce emissions reductions if the states fail to do it on their own. Wyoming and Utah fall under the agency’s Region 8 with Colorado, and the region’s new administrator is KC Becker, Colorado’s former speaker of the House of Representatives.

Colorado, like all states, also has to submit a plan to show how it is eliminating harmful air emissions, but modeling — at least for now — doesn’t show Colorado’s emissions impacting other states above the acceptable threshold, Daly said.

Still, a reduction in emissions drifting from other states would not eliminate the dirty air that hovers over Denver and the northern Front Range. That means Colorado has its work cut out to meet the EPA’s demands to clean up. The EPA has classified the metro area and part of northern Colorado as a “non-attainment” area for years because ground-level ozone pollution exceeds specified standards.

“It’s pretty clear that this alone won’t get Denver into attainment,” Daly said.

Paul Sakuma, Associated Press file

A tanker truck passes the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, Calif., on March 9, 2010. The EPA has proposed implementing its Good Neighbor Rule, which would place tighter regulations on power plants and other sources of air pollution in Wyoming, Utah, California and Nevada in an effort to lower air pollution levels in states downwind from them, including Colorado.

Increased attention to bad air

Improving Colorado’s air quality is gaining urgency, especially as wildfires become a year-round threat because of climate change.

This year, Gov. Jared Polis has asked the legislature to approve a $47 million budget request to nearly double the staff of the state’s Air Pollution Control Division and to improve its air monitoring technology. The legislature also is considering two bills that total more than $125 million to buy electric school buses, provide free public transit during the worst summer ozone days and to replace the oldest diesel trucks in the state’s fleet with newer, more fuel-efficient models.

Cars and trucks are the largest contributors to nitrogen oxide, one of the contaminants that create ground-level ozone. And the EPA has asked the state to reconsider provisions in an air permit for the Suncor Energy oil refinery in Commerce City, another significant contributor to air pollution.

Leah Schleifer, the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division’s spokeswoman, said the agency was tracking the EPA’s policy proposal, but was not taking a stance on it.

“Regardless of what happens with the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, Colorado will continue its strategies to reduce local sources of ozone precursor emissions,” Schleifer said in an email to The Post.

While other states, including Utah, blame pollution drifting from China for their bad air, Polis has declined to use China’s pollution as an excuse for the state’s smog and to ask the EPA to give Colorado a break in declaring its ozone problem severe.

The industries in the other states that would be impacted by the decision include coal and gas-fired power plants as well as facilities that use fossil fuels to power their operations, such as cement kilns, boilers at iron and steel mills, glass-making furnaces and boilers at pulp and paper mills. The rule also would make natural gas pipelines further reduce emissions.

An EPA analysis of the rule’s financial impact estimated it would cost more than $1.1 billion to achieve reductions in all 26 states. The analysis said those expenses would only increase the overall costs of electricity production by just over 1%.

But the EPA said the financial benefits of improving air quality would far exceed the expense, according to the analysis.

Brandon Thibodeaux, The New York Times

Steam billows from the coal-powered Huntington Power Plant in Huntington, Utah, Feb. 7, 2019. The EPA has proposed implementing its Good Neighbor Rule, which would place tighter regulations on power plants and other sources of air pollution in Wyoming, Utah, California and Nevada in an effort to lower air pollution levels in states downwind from them, including Colorado.

Debate over who’s responsible

Grier Bailey, executive director of the Colorado Wyoming Petroleum Marketers Association and Convenience Store Association, which represents oil and gas sellers, said it was not fair to blame Wyoming, which ranked eighth nationally for oil and gas production in 2020, for Colorado’s poor air quality.

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