DENVER (KDVR) — Gov. Jared Polis unveiled what he called the “most ambitious action in Colorado history” to reduce oil and gas air pollution, specifically by targeting ozone-forming nitrogen oxides.

In a Thursday announcement, Polis hailed it as the nation’s “first comprehensive ozone emission reduction program” targeted at the oil and gas industry.

The plan’s focus is on nitrogen oxides, or NOx, which are gases that form when fuel is burned at high temperatures and “play a major role” in ozone formation, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. They often appear as brownish gas and are emitted by automobiles and other non-road vehicles, as well as by industrial sources.

As Polis pointed out, NOx leads to so-called “bad air days,” when poor air quality can lead to harmful health impacts, especially for high-risk groups. He pitched the plan as a way to save hundreds of millions in annual healthcare costs and reduce health issues like asthma, heart attacks and premature death.

The Colorado division of the American Petroleum Institute, an industry group, called the governor’s directives “aggressive and highly ambitious.”

API Colorado’s Lynn Granger pointed to a 2019 state law as a landmark for the industry. Senate Bill 19-181 gave local governments a greater role in oil and gas permitting and made public health a priority for regulators.

Granger said since then, the industry has been faced with burdensome legislation.

“We are hopeful that the governor’s actions today will set the state on a path toward the regulatory certainty our industry has sought since 2019, and stand ever-ready to lead and not follow in achieving our shared goals,” the statement reads in part.

Polis aims to cut nitrogen oxides by 30% by 2025

The governor laid out a plan to cut the gases in three directives.

The first aims to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions from the oil and gas sector by 30% by 2025 and 50% by 2030. It would apply to the oil and gas sector in Colorado’s ozone nonattainment area. Polis is directing the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to make the rules.

Second, Polis is directing the COGCC to “expand best practices” for ozone reduction during the oil and gas permitting process, so companies are already working on reduction as they begin to operate.

Third, the plan would incentivize oil and gas companies to go “above and beyond” in environmental improvements, Polis said.

Oil and gas, air advocates respond to NOx plan

Ozone levels have worsened to “severe” on Colorado’s Front Range. The Denver Metro and Northern Front Range Nonattainment Area is among five in the country that failed to meet 2008 ozone standards set by the EPA.

Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Denver, Douglas, Jefferson, Larimer and Weld counties are within the nonattainment area.

Granger said the industry is ready to “rise to the challenge” to help meet the targets.

“We are, however, frustrated by the process in which these targets were set and the directives rolled out, as we already have a very robust rulemaking schedule in the coming year,” Granger said.

Granger said the industry is already reducing greenhouse gas emissions and is on track to meet 2025 and 2030 goals under the governor’s existing “roadmap” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Colorado Public Interest Research Group, or CoPIRG, said in a release that it’s ready to work with regulators to “ensure they accelerate” the state’s timeline to meet air quality standards.

“After years of missing the mark on clean air, these directives will help ensure our ozone reduction planning process will actually reduce harmful air pollution,” said Kirsten Schatz, with CoPIRG.

CoPIRG pointed to the oil and gas industry as the “largest local source of ozone pollution.”

Meanwhile, Granger called ground-level ozone “a persistent issue along the Front Range, owing in large part to the unique topography of the region,” saying “nearly two-thirds of our daily ozone is attributable to naturally occurring ozone and out-of-state precursors.”

Polis reiterated his administration’s plan to reach 100% renewable energy by 2040, aiming to reach 80% renewable energy by 2030.