Can Coloradans get rid of the brown cloud looming over the Front Range?

Rundles Wrap-Up: Welcome to the —cough-cough — 1970s

Image courtesy of Jeff Zehnder/

When I first came to Colorado in the early 1970s, I was drawn by the beauty and majesty of the mountains, of course, and overall by the vibrancy and opportunities offered by a wonderful city, Denver. It was everything — almost — that I had imagined in my youthful romantic visions conjured up by “Rocky Mountain High” and photos and films of skiing in deep, high-country powder. The sun — more than 330 days of it every year — was invigorating.

It was all so clean and fresh, especially for someone coming from the old Rust Belt of southeastern Michigan — except for the notorious and noxious Brown Cloud that hung over the Front Range on so many days, often so thick that it obscured the mountain view from the city. It forced health officials to issue air quality alerts and recommend curtailing outdoor activities. It was not at all what I expected in such an outdoorsy, youthful and energetic locale.

The main culprit was the abundance of automobiles in growing Colorado.  Anyone who has ever seen a 1973 Chevy Impala, even new, can attest that cars were indeed a Brown Cloud menace. Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, we all discussed such draconian measures as restricting car travel to every other day based on whether a license plate ended in an odd or even number.

Lucky for us, through passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970 and subsequent amendments, passenger cars and trucks in the U.S. over time became somewhat less polluting, and pollution, at least a large part of the visible Brown Cloud, abated over the next several decades. The result was that for the most part since the early 1980s, the conversation around here on air pollution also abated, although a few alerts popped up from time to time. The Brown Cloud discussion went from front-page news to buried way back in the news feed.

Well, now it’s back on the front page, and the Denver metro area – as well as other cities along the Front Range – is once again listed as among the top 10 worst areas for air quality. The Environmental Protection Agency recently released statistics showing that the air around here was at various levels of hazardous on 282 days in 2018 and 265 days in 2019, and that Denver was reclassified by the EPA as a serious violator of federal air regulations. And yes, the infamous Brown Cloud has returned.

In recent press reports, state officials acknowledged the veracity of the EPA’s numbers and reclassification and vowed to move “aggressively on multiple fronts” to reduce air pollution. They cited two specific efforts aimed at that goal: requiring automakers to offer more zero-emission vehicles, and tougher rules for oil and gas industry polluters.

I had to laugh – amid my coughing – at those goals. First of all, oil and gas exploration, especially as it has boomed along the Front Range, is said to be one of the chief sources of hazardous pollution in the air, but the state, the state legislature and indeed, the public at large, have all displayed an enormous reluctance to curtail it, mostly on economic grounds of heightened business activity, jobs and tax revenues derived from exploration. A concerted lobbying and public advertising campaign on the part of the industry — Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development (CRED) — has played no small role in that reluctance.

More laughable, however, is that “zero-emission vehicle” thing, which on two fronts is all blather. One, 80% of new car sales in Colorado last year were low-fuel-economy gasoline light trucks and SUVs, so obviously the public’s appetite for curbing pollution remains low. And second – and this is very important – the metro Denver population has doubled since 1980, from 1.6 million people to 3.2 million people, and statistics show that nearly 75% of the state’s workers commute by driving alone. All those people add a ton of pollution; even if we drive relatively more efficient cars, there are just too many of us.

It is said that if there is a will, there is a way. Right now, there appears to be little will to pollute less, so there is no way to improve. Welcome to the —cough-cough — 1970s.

Categories: Industry Trends, Magazine Articles, Transportation