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The cost of gas is about to skyrocket in Colorado. How high will it go?

Keep an eye on gas prices in the coming weeks, Colorado, and you could witness a major political battle between an extremely irritated governor, Jared Polis, and officials who enforce the federal Clean Air Act.

Colorado has a big problem with toxic ground-level ozone in the nine-county northern Front Range area that the Environmental Protection Agency has declared in “severe” violation of the Clean Air Act’s ozone limits. When an area reaches a “severe” level, the Clean Air Act requires all gas stations in that area to begin selling “reformulated” gas during the summer ozone season, starting June 1.

Reformulated gas, according to the EPA, can reduce ozone-causing emissions because it is denser and does not evaporate as quickly in hot climates. Polis maintains it will skyrocket Colorado gas prices by 50 cents per gallon or more. But the EPA says its studies show the impact is only a few cents.

What is the reality? Let’s pop the hood and take a look.

Are gas prices already going up in Colorado?

Yes, but.

The EPA says the reformulated gas has already arrived at the pumps due to the timing of gas distribution. Colorado had the fastest weekly price increase in the country, an increase of 16 cents, and is now at $3.35 per gallon.

Perspective: That’s exactly the price a year ago, on the same day. Ten years ago around this time, says AAA Colorado’s Skyler McKinley, Front Range gas cost $3.47. The current national average is $3.59.

“For several weeks, we’ve had some of the cheapest gas in the country,” McKinley said. “I suspect prices will rise toward the national average as reformulated gas filters into the system.”

That said, McKinley added that he doesn’t believe reformulated gas will be responsible for spikes of 70 cents on the dollar this summer. There are many factors that can alter the price of gas from five cents to a dollar, from hurricanes that disrupt supply, to the death in a helicopter crash of the Iranian president that destabilized prices in the Middle East, or an incident at Suncor, the only refinery in Colorado.

“You can’t really take away just one thing,” McKinley said.

What did the Polis and EPA studies show would happen?

Polis and his staff have strongly opposed the EPA imposing reformulated gas on Colorado, even though the EPA says the Clean Air Act gives the agency no choice. Polis says the state is doing many other things to reduce the ozone problem and that consumers should not be penalized in this way.

Polis’ staff analyzed a number of scenarios for gas prices this summer and said supply disruptions or other problems in the production and delivery of reformulated gas could mean increases of 50 cents attributable to the EPA’s decision. The EPA has cited its own studies on reformulated gas in many markets (currently about 25% of the US population must buy reformulated gas to combat ozone in other cities) and the results show only an increase of about 3 cents per gallon .

The EPA says the Colorado studies included a much broader range of scenarios, some of which the federal agency does not consider likely. EPA officials also note that other gasoline distributors have applied for permits to add new infrastructure in Colorado that can handle both traditional and reformulated gasoline, and will bring in supplies from out of state to compete with Suncor and keep prices down.

Should we ask the EPA for a break?

Yes, the governor has formally asked regional and national EPA officials to issue a waiver for the northern Front Range, delaying the reformulated gasoline requirement by weeks to a year or more.

“I am very upset,” Polis told a Colorado Sun audience in the online summary of the 2024 legislative session.

Polis maintains that consumer behavior will negate any projected benefits from cleaner gas. “Very unfortunate consequences, including the fact that people will simply drive a little further to get gas at a much lower cost. You can go north to Fort Collins, you can go to Greeley, you can go to Colorado Springs,” Polis said. The extra miles will negate the benefits of the reformulation, he said.

A Johnson’s Corner and Sinclair gas station, seen on May 20, 2024, near Johnstown. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The EPA responds that current demand for gasoline remains historically weak. Average gas prices in Colorado are still below 2016 levels, the EPA said. Colorado’s population has grown, but fewer people commute every day of each workweek, and more electric cars in the state’s overall auto market also reduce demand.

Why is reformulated gas better?

The EPA describes a barrel of oil as a “bucket of hydrocarbons” that are refined and broken down into components ranging from very heavy waxes and lubricants to gasoline and kerosene and lighter-than-air gases. In the summer months, normally refined gasoline evaporates faster at all stages of the process, from refining to storage, distribution, refueling and driving. Each step can release ozone-causing emissions into the air.

Reformulated gasoline is made with the same equipment, but it is denser and less likely to evaporate, the EPA says. Cuts to ozone emissions may not be huge, but the EPA and many environmental groups point out that in the difficult battle against ozone, every part per billion cut can make a difference. In recent years, local officials have implemented restrictions on such obscure items as lawn and gardening equipment, which contribute a small but controllable few parts per billion of ozone.

What will happen next?

“The Clean Air Act does not allow EPA to grant a waiver just on the cost of reformulated gasoline,” said EPA Region 8 spokesman Tyler Gillespie. “There has to be a supply problem.”

The EPA says it is keeping Colorado’s waiver request “open” for now and will review it if there is an emergency or major supply chain disruption that meets the criteria. The decision can be reversed quickly, within 24 hours of an incident or supply crisis, the EPA said.

Air breathers (in other words, all of us) may want to keep their eyes on the bigger prize. The reason all this happens with gasoline is because the Front Range produces too much toxic ozone that contributes to higher rates of asthma, heart problems, and other health problems.

The number of ozone alert days in which we are warned to change our behavior to stay safe has increased dramatically in recent years. The Front Range experienced its first alert this season on May 6.

The EPA’s ozone limits could become even stricter as scientists learn more about the dangers of ozone. Colorado leaders negotiated a package of measures to combat ozone in this year’s legislature, but they also watered down the strongest recommendations from environmental groups. State regulators were criticized for approving an ozone improvement plan that they acknowledged would not meet EPA demands.

In other words, the final price of reformulated gas was not an overnight decision. Is there room in the tank for more debate?

Stuff it.