By Jessica Goad, Manager of Research and Outreach, Center for American Progress Action Fund.
Late last week Rep. Rick Berg (R-ND) and James Lankford (R-OK) introduced the “Regional Haze Federalism Act,” which would impede efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency to combat dirty haze that is polluting national parks and wilderness areas. Haze is caused by sunlight coming into contact with small particles of pollutants in the air, which can also harm humans by way of respiratory problems.National parks such as the Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah, and Mesa Verde all suffer from haze pollution, which causes poor visibility and impedes two of the most important reasons these places attract hundreds of millions of visitors every year—fresh clean air and the views. As the EPA explains, “In eastern parks, average visual range has decreased from 90 miles to 15-25 miles. In the West, visual range has decreased from 140 miles to 35-90 miles.”
This map shows the 156 national parks, wilderness areas, and wildlife refuges that must receive protection from or alleviate haze pollution problems. To combat this pollution, all states must submit a plan for reducing that haze to the EPA. Usually these plans involve requiring dirty coal-fired power plants, refineries, or other industrial sources of emissions to add technologies that would clean up their pollution. If the plans fail to clean up the air quality in national parks, the EPA may reject them and implement its own haze plan. Both North Dakota and Oklahoma recently had their state plans rejected because they would not adequately reduce pollution, prompting these Congressmen to introduce this bill.
Berg explained the need for his bill as a way of fighting against the Obama administration and its “overreaching” EPA:
With each new overreaching, one-size-fits-none mandate, the Obama administration continues to burden the states with unnecessary costs and regulations that are hindering job creation. That’s why today I introduce the Regional Haze Federalism Act. This will rein in the Obama administration and prevent a federal takeover of state haze management. States like North Dakota continue to act responsibly to create well-researched plans and to implement EPA-mandated policies.
Berg’s argument is inaccurate—EPA’s actions are not a hostile takeover of state prerogatives to address haze, but a backstop authority if states fail to take care of their citizens’ public health and landscapes. Additionally, utilities have had many years to prepare for the implementation of the plans—the EPA’s Regional Haze Rule was finalized in 1999. Reduction of haze and parks and wilderness areas is a longstanding goal, not an under-the-radar effort by the Obama administration to usurp states’ rights.
There are only two places in North Dakota and one in Oklahoma that are tracked by EPA for their haze levels. But the pollution caused by the states’ emissions sources was found to affect national parks as far away as Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, and South Dakota and Missouri, New Mexico, and Texas, respectively. Thus, the efforts of Berg and Lankford to undermine the EPA could cause national parks in other states to suffer even more pollution.
Nevertheless, both North Dakota and Oklahoma submitted regional haze plans that were determined to be ineffective at cleaning up air to acceptable levels. After the EPA disapproved portions of the Oklahoma state implementation plan saying that “Oklahoma has not shown that the strategy is adequate to achieve the reasonable progress goals,” the Oklahoma attorney general sued the EPA in June.
Critics of the EPA’s process for addressing regional haze point to the higher rates of electricity that would come from requiring dirty power plants to clean up their acts. But compliance with Clean Air Act regulations has a positive impact on our economy by way of decreased health costs, investment in innovation, and the creation of jobs. Reducing regional haze would also generate economic growth due to an increase in tourism. A letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal from a coalition of utilities and businesses pointed out:
Contrary to the claims that the EPA’s agenda will have negative economic consequences, our companies’ experience complying with air quality regulations demonstrates that regulations can yield important economic benefits, including job creation, while maintaining reliability.
This is yet another attack by Republicans on the Clean Air Act, and one that could have major consequences not only on the health and resilience of our national parks, but on public health and safety.