As foul smog continues to hover along the Front Range horizon, millions of Colorado drivers will pay more for a special formula of gasoline that is supposed to cause less pollution. But just how much that fuel improves the air and whether the expense is worth the financial burden it is under debate in Colorado.
Gov. Jared Polis is poised to fight the use of reformulated gas — a special blend that reduces harmful emissions from car exhaust — and earlier this month he informed a state board that he intends to fight a federal rule that would require it.
Environmentalists, however, say reformulated gas should remain part of the strategy to lower toxic emissions because the ozone problem is a crisis that requires Colorado to use every solution at its disposal.
The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to downgrade the Front Range’s air quality to severe and part of that move requires motorists in a nine-county area stretching from Douglas County to Larimer County to use the reformulated gas during the summer months, when smog is at its worse, beginning in May 2024.
Already, Suncor Energy, which operates a large refinery in Commerce City and provides a third of the gasoline used in Colorado, said it is investing $36 million at its facility to produce the gas. The company, which provided a statement to The Denver Post, would not comment on how much of that cost would be passed to consumers or how much more it would cost retailers who have to buy the special blend for their pumps.
The EPA will categorize the Front Range’s ozone problem as “severe nonattainment” in the coming weeks, according to an emailed statement from KC Becker, the director of the region that includes Colorado. That designation is happening after the region failed to lower toxic air emissions and to meet a 2008 federal air quality standard.
As the EPA’s air quality downgrade looms, the Regional Air Quality Council is writing a plan to move the state into compliance with national air quality standards. That plan, which includes the use of reformulated gasoline, will be presented in September to the state Air Quality Control Commission for approval and then also must be accepted by the EPA.
Reformulated gasoline is blended with oxygenate, an additive that helps gasoline burn more cleanly than the fuel Colorado drivers use now. The EPA says reformulated gas reduces emissions of volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides — all of which combine to form ozone or smog. It was mandated for areas with poor air quality in the 1990 Clean Air Act. Motorists in some areas started using it in 1995, and, it is used in 16 states right now, according to the EPA’s website.
The gas is more expensive but just how much more it will cost per gallon is a mystery.
For starters, it’s nearly impossible to predict where the average price of a gallon of gas will be in two years. Global events such as wars or natural disasters can cause prices to wildly fluctuate. Gas prices vary around the country, based on state taxes, transportation costs and consumer demand.
For example, Colorado’s legislature approved a massive transportation bill in 2021, but six months later Gov. Jared Polis sought to temporarily suspend a 2-cents-per-gallon tax increase that would have funded road projects and public transit.
Plus, Colorado is one of four states where 85 octane is sold and no other state required to use reformulated gas sells that blend.
In the emailed statement, the EPA said it cannot forecast reformulated gas’s impact on prices, but it would expect the cost to gradually drop over time as initial startup costs for companies such as Suncor are established.
AAA Colorado estimates reformulated gas would cause a gallon of gas to increase 20 to 30 cents per gallon, based on 20 years worth of historical data from across the United States, spokesman Skyler McKinley said.
“It’s going to hurt our wallets,” McKinley said.
AAA’s research also shows that drivers typically have a high tolerance for price increases and don’t change their driving habits until a gallon of gas exceeds $4.50, he said. So at Friday’s average price for a gallon of regular — $3.93 — a 30-cent increase would push the cost to $4.23 a gallon, still short of that benchmark.
However, a coalition of industry groups said in a letter to Polis that reformulated gas requirements in other states could add as much as 51 cents onto a gallon. The coalition, which included the Colorado Oil and Gas Association and multiple chambers of commerce, cited April data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a government agency that provides energy analysis.
“These high costs could hurt consumers at the pump, as well as businesses and trucking companies that also face these higher costs, which may compound the public’s inflationary concerns,” the letter said.
Mike Silverstein, executive director of the Regional Air Quality Council, said he’s researched the regions where reformulated gas is required and almost all of them, excluding those in California, have cheaper gasoline than Colorado.
“Everyone can cherry pick and find data to support their argument and I can, too,” he said Thursday during a meeting of the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission.
The chatter over more expensive gas is starting to worry consumers. During Thursday’s air quality commission meeting, multiple people spoke about the economic pressure expensive gasoline puts on families and businesses, including gig workers who drive for a living.
Jacquelyn Buky, an Aurora retiree, said reformulated gas is an outdated and expensive way to cut emissions. High gas prices combined with inflation are putting a squeeze on household budgets, including hers where children and grandchildren recently moved into her home to save money.
“Now is not the time to require reformulated gas,” Buky said. “Fuel costs impact every other aspect of our lives.”
Danny Katz, executive director of the Colorado Public Interest Research Group, an advocacy group that pushes for healthier policies for consumers, said his group has struggled to sort out accurate data on the benefits of reformulated gas and how it balances with the increased cost to consumers. The science is unclear, he said.
“As a clean air advocate, I’m looking at this as this is not the thing that’s going to get our ozone pollution down. There is not one answer. There’s not one small thing that’s going to get us to clean air. It’s going to take a lot of different things,” Katz said. “We just need to do more faster. I haven’t seen anything that says the reformulated gas is the answer.”
The EPA’s website says reformulated gasoline is a significant piece of the country’s smog reduction strategy.
Between 1995 and 1999, drivers using reformulated gas cut emissions of pollutants that cause smog by 64,000 tons, which is the equivalent of taking 10 million cars running on conventional gasoline of the road, the EPA said in a 1999 report. And by expanding its use that year, the EPA predicted another 41,000 tons of pollutants would be removed.
The Regional Air Quality Council included the use of reformulated gas in its draft of a new air quality plan because it “will be helpful in reducing emissions,” Silverstein said. “I won’t deny that. But whether it’s needed to meet the standard is another question.”
In a letter to the Regional Air Quality Council, the Polis administration said the air quality benefits were minimal, only reducing volatile organic compounds by a few tons per day. That would only result in a 0.1 parts per billion reduction of ozone by 2026 — falling far short of the more than five parts per billion the state must eliminate by 2027. The letter cited computer modeling by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Instead, Colorado’s plan to put more zero-emission vehicles on the roads is a far more effective strategy and should be recognized by the EPA, the letter said.
“The state is frustrated that the Clean Air Act offers only a decades old one-size-fits-all approach that does not provide states with the latitude to make data driven decisions on what works best for improving air quality in an economically effective manner,” the letter stated.
Polis informed the Regional Air Quality Council that he reserved the right to pursue any legal options to avoid the reformulated gas requirement.
In an emailed statement, Katie Jones, a spokeswoman for the governor, said his motivation is saving Coloradans money.
“Coloradans can count on Governor Polis to help save them money and to look out for them and their families. We have been clear that Governor Polis and the administration are seeking alternatives because the Governor is committed to helping save people money on everyday items,” the statement said.
The EPA does allow an opt-out for states that meet certain requirements. While Becker’s statement said the agency would collaborate with Colorado she also wrote there “are no silver bullets or easy solutions” for a region once it is downgraded to severe.
Silverstein told the Air Quality Control Commission that he is not aware of other regions successfully receiving an exemption.
Part of the state’s argument for getting a break on reformulated gas is its prediction that it will meet one air quality benchmark on schedule in 2027.
But that is deceiving. Colorado is on track to fall short of another, more stringent air quality standard by 2024.
That’s why environmentalists say the reformulated gas should be part of Colorado’s strategy to reduce harmful ozone-creating emissions. The bad air quality — visible in the Front Range almost every day during the summer — is a crisis that is making people sick and costing the state money when it comes to health care.
Heidi Leathwood, a climate policy analyst with 350 Colorado, a group that wants to eliminate fossil fuels, said she was surprised that Polis would ask for an exemption. While Leathwood said she is not an expert on reformulated gas she trusts the EPA’s word that it reduces air pollution.
“Our ozone has been a serious problem for such a long time that I think we need to do everything we possibly can to get it down because it has such serious health impacts,” she said. “I actually think we are paying far more in health costs because of the ozone problem than we would be paying a few more cents for gasoline.”
Katz likened the Front Range’s smog to a smoke alarm going off in a home. Colorado can take out the batteries and ignore the smoke or address what is causing the smoke, he said.
“I hope people are motivated to reduce pollution because the health benefits are so great,” Katz said. “But whatever motivates people to act because there’s so much we need to do.
“This increase in 2024 can also be a way of sending an alarm out. The last thing we should do is take the batteries out and ignore all these signals. We need to realize we have a major air pollution problem and we can’t ignore it.”