Expensive EPA measures will do little to reduce Southwest haze

by Matthew Anderson of the Sutherland Institute
by Matthew Anderson of the Sutherland Institute

By Matthew Anderson

Last month the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) only partially accepted Utah’s regional plan for reducing haze in the Southwest’s national parks. Deeming the state’s plan insufficient, the EPA plans to impose its own measures aimed at reducing nitrogen oxide emitted from Utah’s coal plants.

“We are disappointed with the decision,” said Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality, “because the Utah plan relied on sound science and common sense, improving visibility at a reasonable cost to Utah ratepayers.” Bird is right. Not only does this new federal plan do little to improve visibility, but it will come at a huge cost.

Utah has been at the forefront of pollution reduction efforts in the Western United States, with emission reduction milestones from coal plants achieved seven years ahead of the EPA’s schedule, and completion of the Regional Haze State Implementation Plan five years earlier than most states.

The most recent five-year average indicates that visibility at Utah’s national parks and wilderness areas is improving on both the 20 percent worst and 20 percent best days, and the state has already achieved better visibility improvement than the preliminary reasonable progress projections for 2018.

Despite these great strides, the EPA is requiring central Utah’s coal plants to install selective catalytic reduction (SCR) technology in an attempt to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions. The cost estimate to install SCR at the Hunter and Huntington coal plants is $580 million, and it would require the demolition and reconstruction of much of the facilities. Utah’s decision not to require SCR on its coal plants is based more on limited benefit than on high cost.

A decade of research conducted by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality in collaboration with the EPA’s own technical staff has demonstrated why reductions in nitrogen oxide have not resulted in a corresponding reduction in visibility impairment in the Southwest’s national parks: The region has low levels of ammonia, a chemical compound that reacts with nitrogen oxide to produce ammonium nitrate – a significant cause of visibility impairment.

In other words, while SCR has been successful in other parts of the country, our climate and geography are such that the technology will do little to improve visibility.

The impacts of SCR on the Intermountain West’s haze issues is negligible. However, its effects on the economies of our rural counties are substantial. Carbon County officials say power plants and mineral extraction support 80 percent of the local economy, and for every power plant job that goes away, five other jobs are jeopardized or vanquished. The EPA’s SCR requirement threatens to shut down the lifeblood of Emery and Carbon Counties, which already struggle to keep up economically with the rest of the state.

The fact that air pollution exists in the Southwest’s national parks isn’t in question, and we ought to take measures that preserve the scenic beauty these places provide. But the measures being imposed by the EPA will do almost nothing to “de-haze” the region, and they slap a huge burden on rural Utahns. Let’s do something that would actually clean up the haze instead of needlessly sacrificing a thriving local industry, the economy it supports, and the families of central Utah.

Matthew Anderson is a policy analyst for the Coalition for Self-Government in the West, a project of Sutherland Institute.

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