Anyone who has spent any time in Arizona is familiar with a mirage. One of its characteristics is that the closer you move toward it, the farther it moves away from you. The end result is that, try as you might, you'll never succeed in catching up to it.
The new air quality standards being proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are a lot like a mirage. The only difference is that there's a good scientific explanation for a mirage -- the same can't be said for the new standards.
States have made considerable progress over the years in meeting federal cleaner air standards. Between 1980 and last year, for example, the national average for ozone levels decreased by more than 20 percent. But just as the country was beginning to close in on meeting the ozone limits set by the EPA, the agency proposed revisions to the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. In June, the EPA announced that it wants to lower the standard for ozone from .08 parts per to between .70 and .75 parts per million. The problem is not so much with the objective -- everyone wants cleaner air. The problem is that just as we are getting closer to meeting the original goal, the EPA now wants to move the goal posts.
If the EPA tightens the standard, it will make it harder for every area of Arizona as well as nearly every other state, to be in compliance. One area that will be hit especially hard is one I'm most familiar with -- agriculture. Farms and ranches in the state are liable to be under attack like never before.
As a lifelong rancher, I know the importance of these two industries to the economic health of Arizona and to the whole Southwest. But as states like ours face increasing pressure to come into compliance on ozone standards, those of us in agriculture are liable to increasingly become a target. The states face looming deadlines to come into attainment, not only with the new particulate matter standards, but also with the existing standards for PM and ozone. If the bar is raised to the new stricter standards, many more areas will be classified with a "non-attainment" designation. The EPA's own figures show that some 440 counties still have not met the current standard. That number could nearly triple if the EPA's most stringent option takes effect.
"Non-attainment" means that cities, counties and states must develop statewide implementation plans showing the actions they would take to meet the standards. The provisions of those plans could include such things as auto tailpipe testing, restrictions on manufacturing emissions, even controlling when and where large daytime events might take place. We might, for example, be looking at the end of baseball on lazy summer afternoons.
Along with its other effects, it's likely that the tight, new EPA standards will put many rural areas out of attainment for the first time. The major industries in many of these areas -- typically ranching and farming -- will become targets for lowering pollution. What would that mean? No one is sure, but even before these latest, tighter regulations, farmers in California were reportedly forced to replace tractors and other equipment to comply with EPA's current ozone standard.
Many people in agriculture believe the EPA has misinterpreted the available science to justify its revisions to the air quality standards. That's why a number of industry groups are working to get the folks in Washington to take a second look at some of their goals and timetables.
The simple fact is that states like Arizona, with a healthy agricultural industry that's a vital part of our heritage, deserve better. Having the goals changed by leaders in Washington just as we were getting near to reaching them is neither fair nor safe. Living out here with the desert for so long, we know the dangers of chasing a mirage.
Jake Flake is a senator in the Arizona State Legislature.