The debate over cleaner, pricier gasoline on the Front Range, explained

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4min 37sec
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David Zalubowski/AP Photo
The per-gallon prices are illuminated above the various grades of gasoline available at a Shell station Friday, Nov. 5, 2021, in southeast Denver.

After decades of failing to meet federal air pollution standards, Colorado's Front Range is set to become the latest region required to sell reformulated gasoline every summer.

The federal mandate aims to address metro Denver's persistent smog problem. In April, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed reclassifying most of the region as a "severe" ozone violator. If finalized as expected, the move would force gas stations from Fort Collins to Douglas County to exclusively sell a cleaner-burning gasoline blend as soon as the summer of 2024. 

State air quality regulators have expected federal action for years, but the final steps come in an election year focused on high gas prices — a tough political reality since reformulated gasoline is consistently more expensive than conventional fuel. 

Gov. Jared Polis is now asking the federal government to study and reconsider the reformulated gasoline mandate. Katherine Jones, a spokesperson for the Governor’s Office, said the request is the latest example of Polis working to help Colorado families save money, echoing a major theme of his current election campaign.

“The administration has proposed alternatives and other viable options to the EPA’s approach that do not raise costs. The governor's focus is on taking actions that will improve air quality, not seeking exemptions from EPA designation,” Jones said.

But experts agree it is a tall ask since federal laws leave little to no wiggle room around the gasoline mandate in regions considered “severe” ozone violators. Polis’ request also marks a shift from his administration, which withdrew a state attempt to delay federal ozone action earlier in his term.

To break down the debate, here's what reformulated gasoline is and what it could mean for Colorado.

What is reformulated gasoline?

Reformulated gasoline is a cleaner fuel blended to emit fewer smog ingredients. Congress established a program to require remixed fuel in high-ozone areas when it updated the U.S. Clean Air Act in 1990.

The EPA now requires the fuel mixture in parts of 16 different states, including the metro areas around New York City, Chicago, Houston, Dallas and Washington, D.C. California requires reformulated gasoline under a more stringent set of state-level regulations. About 25 percent of gasoline sold in the U.S. is reformulated, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Is reformulated gasoline more expensive?


Reformulated gasoline is consistently more expensive than traditional fuel, but the price difference depends on the amount available from local refineries and other market forces.

In 2021, federal data show reformulated regular-grade fuel cost 36 cents more per gallon compared to conventional gasoline nationwide, on average. As of last week, the price gap was about 30 cents per gallon. 

Exact cost predictions for reformulated fuel in Colorado vary wildly. 

The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce claims prices of reformulated blends could be nearly 50 cents per gallon higher after the EPA mandate goes into effect. The Regional Air Quality Council, the lead air quality planning agency for the Front Range, released a 2011 report estimating the requirements would result in an 11- to 19-cent per gallon price bump. It has not completed a more recent cost estimate.

EPA Regional Administrator KC Becker, a former state house speaker, acknowledged federal action would likely lead to higher gasoline prices at a recent transportation summit.

“This is one thing that can help drive down ozone, but it is going to make gas a lot more expensive in Colorado,” Becker said.

What does the governor want the EPA to do?

Polis has asked the federal government to study and possibly delay the reformulated gasoline mandate. The question is whether there’s a legal pathway for the request to move forward.

Colorado air regulators are now preparing a proposal, known as a State Implementation Plan, to bring ozone levels below federal limits. In early August, the board overseeing the Regional Air Quality Council voted to attach a statement from the Polis administration to the latest draft. 

The statement argues the financial impact on drivers would outweigh the benefits of reformulated gas. In 30 years since Congress approved the requirement, cars have become more fuel efficient. Separate regulations also mean conventional gasoline burns cleaner than it once did. As a result, the Polis administration sees more promise in other air pollution strategies, like encouraging the adoption of electric vehicles.

“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 Polis administration wrote in the statement.

Could Colorado get any sort of exception from the reformulated gas requirement?

The possibility of a waiver and delay is unlikely.

After a string of hazy summers along the Front Range, the federal government is set to reclassify the region as a “severe” nonattainment area under a 2008 ozone standard. EPA regional spokesperson Richard Mylott said there’s no ambiguity in federal law: Any region earning the classification must sell reformulated gas. 

“The Clean Air Act does not provide for either a delay or a waiver of this statutory obligation,” Mylott said.

But the governor’s office insists there’s some flexibility. State air quality officials have noted the EPA allowed Atlanta to avoid the reformulated gasoline requirement in 2014. While that’s accurate, the Atlanta region had recently improved local ozone pollution enough to lose its designation as a “severe” ozone nonattainment area. 

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Meanwhile, environmental advocates are frustrated the governor’s office is now trying to skirt the requirement. Jeremy Nichols, director of the climate and energy program for WildEarth Guardians, said if policymakers disapproved of reformulated gas, they should have reduced ozone pollution earlier. 

“They had chance after chance to avoid this situation. And rather than take the steps they needed to, they blew it,” Nichols said.

Didn't Gov. Polis ask the EPA to take more aggressive ozone actions at one point?

He did. 

In 2019, Polis withdrew a request for additional time to meet the EPA's 2008 health-based ozone standard, prompting the federal agency to reclassify the region from a "moderate" to a "serious" violator of federal ozone standards.

“There’s too much smog in our air, and instead of hiding behind bureaucracy and paperwork that delay action, we are moving forward to make our air cleaner now,” Polis said in a 2019 statement about the decision.

The EPA is now moving ahead to reclassify the region from a "serious" to a "severe" violator under the same ozone standard. Due to a legal settlement with environmental groups, the agency is expected to finalize the decision as soon as next month, lining up the gasoline requirement to go into effect in the summer of 2024.

Jones, the spokesperson for the governor’s office, said the 2019 decision did not affect the timeline for a “severe” downgrade. Due to recent air pollutants conditions, the federal government would have almost certainly reclassified the region anyway, she said.

Would reformulated gasoline help control ozone pollution in Colorado?

Yes, but the overall effect would likely be small. 

Gasoline-powered vehicles release nitrogen dioxide and volatile organic compounds, two air pollutants that can form ground-level ozone when they react in the atmosphere amid heat and sunlight. 

The regional air council estimates local sources along the Front Range emit about 500 tons of ozone precursors on an average summer day. Silverstein said computer models show a switch to reformulated gasoline would avoid about 5 tons of daily emissions — or 1 percent of the total.

His office also ran models to see how reformulated gasoline would affect future ozone levels. It found reformulated blends would lower average ozone concentrations by 0.1 parts per billion, a tiny fraction of the 75 parts per billion federal standard the region often exceeds each summer. 

The Polis administration referenced the result in its statement questioning the gasoline requirement. Silverstein, however, isn’t confident in the number. He said the air quality model is not precise enough to explain the effect of individual policies, whether it’s reformulated gasoline or stricter regulations on drilling sites. 

“To call out one particular strategy on its own and have confidence that it actually is 0.1 part per billion? It is not really a number that I strongly support,” Silverstein said.

Where would the reformulated fuel come from? And where would it be required to be sold?

Suncor Energy, a Canadian oil and gas company, operates the only oil and gas refinery in Colorado. A spokesperson for the company said the facility is prepared to make reformulated gas for the summer of 2024. It expects to spend $36 million to reconfigure the refinery to make the blend. 

The EPA would require the fuel across the northern Front Range ozone nonattainment area, which includes portions of eight counties stretching from Greeley to Castle Rock. 

Michael Paules, a Colorado-based associate director with the American Petroleum Institute, said Suncor likely wouldn’t be able to meet the demand for the cleaner gasoline on its own. If the fuel mixture can’t be piped in from other states, he expects the Front Range could periodically experience higher prices than the rest of the state. 

"This is where we agree with the governor: This is not the best way to get your bang for your buck on air quality," Paules said.