blank.gif (51 bytes) Environment

Haze (and the EPA)
Loom Over Nevada

by Ray Bacon

veryone wants clean air, right? Certainly residents of Las Vegas, Reno and even Carson City look out on days when their city has a brown haze over it and wonder about health of the environment. Some days the health departments say it is not a health problem and other days it is a problem, but it looks the same to most people. What are we willing to pay to improve air quality? Not just the health criteria but also the visibility of the air? Is it acceptable if we learn to maintain air quality or do we need to spend money to drastically improve the current numbers? What causes the visible brown haze air polution, and what causes unhealthy air? Are the two the same or not? These are not simple questions, but the federal government is imposing one-size-fits-all rules that may impact all residents of Nevada.

In February, after several years of working on visibility issues, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) forwarded their final draft of the Regional Haze Rule (RHR) to the Office of Management and Budget. This is normally the last step before a new regulation from the federal government becomes law. By the time this is printed, the final law may be in place. It has missed many deadlines since the Clean Air Act amendments were passed in 1991.

Why is visibility such a sticky issue for the EPA? This article will attempt to outline the complexity of the issue and the potential impact on the people of Nevada over the next 60-65 years. Many readers will not live another 60 years. Our children will, and they should have the option of continuing to live in Nevada.

When the Clean Air Act was renewed in 1991, it contained a small section that required the EPA to work with the Western states to study the causes of reduced visibility over the majestic vistas of the Western national parks and develop ways to improve it. The initial effort was to study the visibility in the Grand Canyon. The Western states surrounding the Grand Canyon formed a commission to study the sources of the pollution that impacted visibility. Certainly air pollution from the surrounding power plants and cities was a factor, but there was also air pollution from California, Mexico, dirt roads and natural causes, such as pollen. The commission found human-caused pollution and natural pollen and dust to be the major items. An early thought was to pave all the dirt roads in the West at a cost of over $20 billion per year for a few decades. That idea faded because regulators realized that people in Oregon and Idaho could not be sold on the idea that their dirt roads were destroying the vistas of the Grand Canyon nearly a thousand miles away.

Finally the report was submitted to the EPA. It concluded that further study was needed and that the measures in the Clean Air Act amendments to reduce particle and vehicle emissions were likely to slow the decreasing visibility over the Grand Canyon. Even the sternest measures considered were going to be barely perceptible to the average human on the average day over the next 20 years. The report called for some measures that didn’t seem to be supported by the technical data collected. Among all the states, tribes and federal agencies involved in the study, Nevada was the only entity to vote against the final report and its conclusions.

Bureaucratic Myopia?

About a year later the EPA issued its first draft of their proposed RHR. Nevada and most of the Western states concluded that the agency had ignored most of the findings of the study. The first draft was typical one-size-fits-all approach where each state would be required to show roughly a 10 percent improvement in visibility each decade. If you live in an Eastern rust belt state that is not growing and has limited visibility, the 10 percent improvement might require nothing new. However, in Nevada where our visibility is often 140 miles or more, adding an extra 14 miles in a decade will be tough if not impossible after a couple of decades. This requirement is tougher in fast-growing areas like the West compared to areas of stagnant growth—say, in parts of the plains and the East. The EPA had one public hearing on its proposal in Denver. The comments from all corners of the country were negative. Forty-six states and most of the business community forwarded negative comments to the EPA about the rule. The strongest protests concerned the obvious penalty imposed on Western states with already good visibility (except in urban pockets). Western states had invested time and money in the data and study of the Grand Canyon only to have it largely ignored.

The Western Governors Association (WGA), under the leadership of Utah Governor Mike Leavitt, formed a group to negotiate a side agreement with the EPA for the Western states. The "group of eight"—two state air directors (Colorado and Utah), two from industry (Arizona and Utah), two environmentalists (Arizona and Colorado), one tribal member (Arizona) and one from a federal agency (Colorado) achieved a delicate balance that was close to the original Grand Canyon study. The EPA accepted the WGA proposal along with restrictions imposed by Congress that their various air programs must be coordinated. Again, in the final proposed rule submitted to OMB in February, key pieces of the WGA agreement were ignored and new criteria added. The final rule was announced by Vice President Gore on Earth Day. In our view it still contains most of the flaws pointed out earlier.

That is a short summary of six years, but where are we today? The final EPA rule calls for states working in regional coordination with other states to achieve "natural visibility conditions by 2064," 60 years after the baseline data is established in 2004. "Natural Visibility Conditions" is a new term and is not defined in the final rule. If "natural visibility conditions" means what it appears to mean, the economic impact on Nevada is going to be devastating. Reversing the impact of people and our modern society to improve the vistas in the national parks has the potential to force big changes in our lifestyles. Remember this action is in the name of visibility, not health improvement.

Currently about 70 percent of the electrical power generated in the West comes from coal-fired power plants. Most Western power plants use cleaner coal from Wyoming. Most could be even cleaner with additional controls. The costs of reaching maximum emissions reduction are very expensive—so expensive that many plants would not be competitive if required to reach those reduction levels at current power rates. Environmentalists push for more power from "renewable resources" like solar, wind, geothermal or biomass. Despite massive federal research and development subsidies, each of these resources tends to be expensive and/or less dependable than low-cost, coal-fired power plants. Solar doesn’t work well on cloudy days or after dark when people want to use electric lights. Geothermal resources are limited, though Nevada has more than most other states. The wind blows in Nevada, but it may not blow when we need the power generated and supplied to customers. Considering the proven technology known today, the EPA’s rural haze rule seems likely to drastically increase power costs or drive the country back towards nuclear power plants. The visible emission from nuclear power plants is steam.

Others suggest that we can replace the existing coal-fired plants with natural gas plants, which are cleaner than most coal power plants. That option seems likely to use more natural gas than we have, requiring huge imports from Canada within a few years, if the Canadians will sell it to us. Perhaps some coal plants could be converted to gas-fired plants, but many of these plants are located where construction of large new gas pipelines would be required to supply them. Other possible solutions to provide the steady base load of electricity are still unproven or theoretical. All these possible solutions work if consumers are willing to pay a high enough price for electricity to cover development, construction, conversion, emission controls and other costs required to achieve acceptable answers.

We have covered electrical power needs, but mobile sources are a large source of emissions that impact visibility. Mobile sources are cars, trucks, buses, planes and trains that we all use and depend upon. To achieve "natural visibility conditions," electric vehicles will become the norm for most. Some of the best minds in the auto industry are working to reduce the cost of electric cars, and it may happen someday. People want cleaner air and many are willing to pay some premium for electric-powered cars when and if the technology eventually works. But the EPA’s regional haze rule might force that additional cost on everyone much sooner than we are ready for it. It does support the anti-sprawl approach that Gore and the anti-growth community are lining up for the election campaign.

Coming Attractions

Only a few years ago, people in Nevada laughed when California’s South Coast Air Quality District talked about eliminating backyard barbecues, gas lawn mowers and related outdoor equipment. In a fast-growing state like ours, the haze rule could lead us to the same restrictions within 10-20 years. Many people who moved to Nevada from California warned us about crazy ideas that start there, then migrate everywhere. Most Nevadans assume we are smart enough to not follow their lead on many ideas. This time we are on the same road, thanks to the federal government. Distant bureaucrats are impacting our quality of life, but it is debatable whether they are improving it or not. Nevada has plenty of space, although too much of it is owned or controlled by the federal government. We don’t need to cram people into apartments in the urban areas. Nevada’s quality of life is directly related to living space for many of us.

The EPA’s regional haze rule is bad for Nevada and the rest of the West. We have worked with our state air quality staff in Carson City, and they share our concerns. The mining industry and county governments have good reason to fear damage from the regulations, but the EPA continues on the path it has decided is best. If the rule was related to health concerns, the draconian measures might be understandable and perhaps acceptable. However, the rule is to improve visibility—and how much are we willing to sacrifice for visibility? Think about that question, which the Beltway bureaucrats have already answered for you. This one-size-fits-all rule proves the smartest people are in Washington, D.C.—just ask them, and they will confirm it. NJ

Ray Bacon is executive director of the Nevada Manufactures Association.


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