Breaking: Fossil Fuels Choke Denver With Air Quality 3 Times Worse Than Beijing

Downtown Denver viewed through the haze of Colorado's "brown cloud" on March 6. Photo: Andy Bosselman
Downtown Denver viewed through the haze of Colorado's "brown cloud" on March 6. Photo: Andy Bosselman

Today from downtown Denver, the peaks of the Rocky Mountain foothills were barely visible through the brown cloud of pollution that covered the region with an unhealthy level of fine particulate matter.

At six p.m., Denver’s air quality index measured 162, an unhealthy level more than three times worse than the moderate rating of 51 now in Beijing. The pollution triggered health warnings across the northern Front Range.

Colorado’s “brown cloud” is an increasingly frequent reminder of the Denver-Boulder metro’s car dependency and the impact of the state’s oil and gas production, which the industry projects will generate $12.5 billion in revenue this year.

the Rocky Mountains were barely visible through the smog
Looking west from downtown Denver, the peaks of the Rocky Mountains were barely visible through the smog.

Kyle Clark, a 9 News anchor, reported that 30 to 40 percent of ozone levels — a related form of pollution that is not responsible for the brown cloud — result from the state’s oil and gas industry. Traffic generates similar levels, he tweeted.

He also pointed out the irony of today’s extreme air quality problems with the intense oil and gas industry lobbying that happened at the state capitol today as legislators considered sweeping environmental reforms.

Reducing car dependency could help the region achieve clearer air, and Denver has plans to do exactly that. But the city is better at setting goals than achieving them.

In Denver’s Mobility Action Plan, officials set a strategic goal of reducing single occupancy vehicle commutes from 73 percent of trips to 50 percent.

The city plans to supplement current bus service with a high-frequency transit network. The proposal is part of the long-term planning process known as Denveright, which will be finalized later this year.

But there are no concrete plans for the city to come up with the funding needed to provide the improved transit service promised in the plans.

Denver refinery through brown cloud of pollution
The Regency Student Housing Community (left) and a construction crane frame part of a refinery complex northeast of Denver, which is difficult to see through today’s smog.

Meanwhile, the Colorado Department of public health warned all people in the area to “reduce prolonged or heavy exertion” today and tomorrow, especially “people with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children.”

Looking northeast from a downtown high-rise, it was almost impossible to see a nearby refinery. A crown of smog usually hovers over its buildings. But today its dirty halo blended into the thick haze of visible pollution that extended as far as the eye could see.

  • TakeFive

    Many, many cities are sited in valleys and all are vulnerable to temperature inversions. At one time I-25 through Denver was referred to as the Valley Highway.

    It will be another decade I suspect but I assume Streetsbloggers are huge supporters of EV’s and AV’s which should provide great relief?

  • Sad to see, but how many days/year does Denver trigger an air-quality warning? That seems like the most relevant stat for this piece. Barring smoke from Western forest-fires, it’s seemed pretty rare in my 3.5 years living here.

    • Josh Maynard
      • Kim

        This is a geographic anomoly because Denver is in a fishbowl. This is historically how the region has been. This is not scientific. They should go back to the horse and buggy days, the 80’s, 90’s and even longer. It’s always been like this.

        • Josh Maynard

          If there is historical precedence, then it isn’t an anomaly. It’s a weather pattern.

          I’m not sure how being a Luddite will help, but you’re more than welcome to do so if it suits you. If you’d like to point out what you think is unscientific, we could discuss it. But a blanket statement of “not scientific” and then making a ridiculous request to give up technology convinces few your position has merit.

          In the meantime, the rest of us can further protections from off-gassing fracking wells. While “the brown cloud” has been here before, it was previously due to car emissions and poor emission standards. Now the smog needed another large polluter with poor emission standards, oil and gas, to continue the cycle of pollution.

          We need to stop fracking and the brown cloud will be gone.

        • WRGerman

          It’s a glimpse into the future, if people don’t wake up. I lived in the Colonge-Bonn region for 20 years, and it got really, really bad towards the end of my time in the area–you would go out at 4-5 am in the morning, and it smelled like being next door to an oil refinery.

    • David Cook

      My recollection (rough) is that we get around 30 ozone air quality alerts each summer – calling for vulnerable populations (young, elderly, respiratory challenged) to stay indoors AND for reduced driving, filling gas tanks when the sun isn’t up (ozone is photo active) cut use of crappy motors like lawn mowers, etc.
      Subscribe to the ozone alerts in the bottom right hand corner at:

  • Zeb Clay

    Looking out my window at downtown and the view is pretty crisp, after the fog rolled out an hour or so ago.

    • John

      This is an article about Wednesday’s pollution. That is why they put dates at the top.

      • Chad Hinden

        Wensday it was foggy not smog. get a clue !

        • John

          Yes, that is why the state issued an air quality warning – because the air quality was so good.

          And, pointing to the current air quality doesn’t show what it was for Wednesday, March 6:

          shows that it was unhealthy in several areas for ozone, particulates smaller than 2.5 and 10 micrometers.

          But, I am sure you know more than the scientists and monitoring equipment.

  • Aelwyn

    FAKE NEWS. Okay, not entirely. But the fact that there’s zero mention of yesterday’s temperature inversion (which is decidedly NOT an everyday occurrence in Denver) indicates that this piece is little more than propaganda. I’m not saying that cleaner air isn’t a worthy endeavor, but to infer that yesterday was anything approaching normal or that Denver and Beijing are even close to the same level in air pollution is… uh, journalistically reprehensible.

    • TM

      The fact that we do get temperature inversions means we have to be more diligent in keeping our air pollutant levels low because we know we will have days where they get trapped on us like this.

      Since it is not an everyday occurrence maybe we should also be looking at temporary restrictions on driving when this is happening to protect our health, especially those most vulnerable. Instead of telling kids and elderly not to go outside, we should be telling people not to drive.

  • Jared the turtle piemaker ;)

    Double the population and you are certain to get more pollution. Strange how the air wasnt bad 10 years ago.

    • TM

      Only if you are doubling the amount of driving also.

      We can easily add population without increasing the miles driven if we build more compactly and make other modes of transport feasible.

      • Jared the turtle piemaker ;)

        A simple solution would be to place a large funnel shaped dome over Denver and pump the smog to Aurora.. haha

      • David Cook

        We can and should decrease miles driven even as pop grows – but we are not. Transit ridership has been falling year – after – year even with the FasTracks expansion. Try downloading and using the new Waze Carpool app. The riders pay the driver a small mileage fee through the app. With three in the car you can ride in the HOV lane for free on US 36. If we want to fix this problem, it is a big improvement over Lyft and Uber which have averaged less than one passenger per mile driven and are part of the reason for declining transit ridership.

    • John

      You must not have lived here 10 years ago.

      • Jared the turtle piemaker ;)

        You are right 9 years 4 months. Was 2010. Guess i should have said it wasnt like that 9 yrs and 4 months ago

  • Tyler

    I’m confused. It sounds like the smog is unrelated to refineries, which create plenty of pollution but do not contribute to smog. Is this correct?

  • Bill Winston

    What??? Look outside. Perfectly clear. More alarmism…

    • John

      Or this is a story from Wednesday and you are commenting on Thursday. Big clues would be the date at the top of the article and the article says 6pm which hasn’t happened yet on Thursday.
      If it snowed on Monday and you read about on Tuesday when it’s not snowing do you claim it didn’t happen?

  • Klyph14

    I just looked out my window and it’s clear. Obviously there is no problem at all and we should do nothing – Everyone in these comments

  • Harrison Hardig

    Is it crazy to think that the substantial uptick in US oil production in MN and ND would be in direct correlation with the amount of oil being refined in Denver? Is it crazy to think that these oil refineries have found their way into the pockets of regulators? Do you think the wages paid to the few that work at those refineries outweigh the externalizes created by the industry, and the bonuses collected by those company executives? That is all.

    • Tyler

      I don’t think there’s any oil coming from MN

  • Joan Teti

    maybe it’s all the pot smoke

  • Travis

    That’s pretty bad, but I think there is a little bit of data deception in this piece. According to the Department of State’s measurement of the air quality index in post-industrial Beijing (I analyzed 2008) the air quality we associate with Beijing in recent history has a max of 610 and an average high of 146.19. I take this to be on the same scale as the reported 151.

    146 is still less bad than Denver’s 151, but it for sure put into perspective the comparison they are trying to make between Beijing and Denver. An apparently temperature based anomaly high of 151 should be reported in legitimate context (Beijing in the time we are all thinking about (about 2008) not Beijing after years of deliberate effort to get emissions down.

    All that said…Denver you are on a bad path.

    I did a quick analysis of the year 2008 on excel finding the peak value and averaging the top 1/3 of samples reported.

  • LazyReader

    Comparing Denver to Beijing……….now they’re just getting desperate.
    No one’s forcing you to use fossil fuels, feel free to give them up anytime.

    • Josh Maynard

      Emissions standards have strengthened, and that’s why the pollution is now largely due to fracking, not fossil fuel use. Giving them up won’t help because fracking oil/gas produced here aren’t used here.

      Forcing us to deal with fracking off-gassing is the issue.

      And yes, we are desperate to breathe. Because of which, the comparison is quite on point.

      • What? LOL So the EPA and other groups are not correct?

  • Janelle London

    Joining the Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) Mandate states would require automakers to sell a certain % of ZEVs in Colorado. This means the automakers would have to stock electric vehicles, advertise them, etc. Colorado would get access to the newest EVs first (like electric SUVs and electric pickup trucks).

  • Mindy Miller

    Unfortunately, although temperature inversions are not super common, they are not uncommon by any means in this area. To shrug them off as not really being a factor makes as much sense as saying, well, it was the car that killed the pedestrian, but the guy behind the wheel really doesn’t drive that often…
    The fact that there is enough air pollution along the Front Range to froth up this dismal AQI in a day (about the time the inversion took to set in after our most recent storm) is what’s really scary. Fracking has been shown, (look up, as one example, the Front Range Air Pollution & Photochemistry study whose results were released in 2017, and the results kept very much on the D.L.) to release seriously toxic substances into our air. The population of drivers is exploding. Industries that release emissions are not being effectively regulated. And the Front Range weather dynamic creates an easy place for all that stuff to nestle up against the foothills if conditions are right. But the next question is, is it fair to hope that all that air nastiness gets moved out of here–to another state? Maybe we need to move toward smarter ways of keeping that stuff in the ground, innovating better machines, and punishing, rather than encouraging, industries that emit it.

  • franklygross

    are there stats on how the use of green cars has helped reduce this? they have been around for over 10 years, whats the impact?

  • J Dwight

    This blog post I found on the City of Denver is pretty comical:

  • Kim

    It’s always been this way because of the geographic anomoly that happens surrounding Denver. It was like this in the 80’s and even in the horse and buggy days. This is nothing new. The mountains as well as the planes creates a fish bowl effect because Denver is located in the bowl. This is a geographical anomoly and because people have built in an area where they should never build. Denver sits in the bottom of the fish bowl where everything gets trapped.

  • Dallas Powell

    Your comparison to Beijing is silly and misleading. According to the USA embassy the high on most days during winter in Beijing approaches 200-250 while at 6:00 am after a good wind it will drop to 51. So I am guessing your reporter looked during at the level during the night time while using number in Denver during the day. Pollution in Denver has improved. I remember days when Denver really suffered. This article is misleading at best. The solution to pollution problem might easily be corrected by moving the capital of Colorado East of the airport where the inversion affect of the foothills would not be as big an issue. Politicians and lawyers do not need to have such prime property.

    • Correct, this news is a complete fake unless they were measuring Denver at a peak time and Beijing at night. Typical American News – create a crisis then sell advertisement – mainly cars!

  • Newcon

    Wow. These people are not so smart thinking about their employment instead of the environment. Its a tragedy; a tragedy of the commons.

  • Dave Morgan

    It’s what you get when people decide to think only as far ahead as the end of their nose. There’s got to be far more intelligent beings out there in space than we could ever hope for here on Earth. We need to be invaded in the worst way, if only to lead us out of our toxic box canyons. In the grand scheme of things we must’ve been a very early prototype.

  • Quint Santos

    help the air

  • Quint Santos

    we need eletric cars

  • Quint Santos


  • Jose Moreno


  • Bobmn

    EVs are good for the world, good for local air quality, fun to drive, more convenient, less maintenance. I don’t understand why each day 200,000 people buy new gasoline/diesel vehicles, instead of EVs.


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