In yet another goodwill gesture to the energy industry, the feds are proposing to loosen air quality restrictions in some national parks and wilderness areas. The EPA’s new rule would change the way in which emissions are reported, allowing power plants to substitute an annual average in place of averages for shorter periods, such as a day or a week. Pollution spikes—such as those on a hot summer day, when a plant is running full tilt—would no longer be regulated under the proposed plan.
Other features of the proposal include granting state regulators discretion in determining how to calculate emissions and excluding existing plants with variances from pollution estimates.
The upshot of all the wonky details, according to the National Park Service and many of the EPA’s own regional offices, is that the proposal would give a pass to industry and severely lessen the air quality protections national parks now enjoy. One Park Service employee compared the proposed annual emission method to "allowing a person to average all the variations in his driving speed over [an] entire year to see whether he is complying with the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit," says the Christian Science Monitor.
The new regulations would potentially apply to the 156 national parks, wilderness areas and wildlife refuges that receive the highest levels of pollution protection under a 1977 amendment to the Clean Air Act. If approved, they are to take effect before the end of this year.
Some opponents say the proposal could set air quality efforts back decades. As the High Country News reported in 2006, policy changes on the regional and federal level in the 1990s led to cleaner air in most of the nation’s parks. But parks in the Interior West were not among those, and now that many of these same areas are seeing an unprecedented oil and gas boom, trouble lurks on the horizon.
A 1500 megawatt coal-fired power plant is currently in development 46 miles from Mesa Verde, one of 10 national parks the National Parks Conservation Association considers most at risk from pollution from new coal-fired power plants. Three more—Capitol Reef, Zion and Great Basin—also lie in the West.