Parting gifts from Washington
Administration promises lasting Four Corners impacts

The La Plata Mountains appear to be shrouded in haze in this shot, taken near Mancos. In a parting shot from Washignton, the view could get worse as EPA regulations governing power plant emissions are eased./Photo David Halterman

by Missy Votel

The Bush Administration may be stepping down from power, but it is not doing so without leaving a lasting impression on the Four Corners.

In advance of a looming Nov. 14 deadline, the Bush Administration is making last-ditch efforts to push through numerous federal regulations, including rules that would ease limits on pollution from power plants and open up sensitive wilderness to drilling.

“These are just part of a long list of nasty things the Bush Administration is trying to push through,” said Mark Pearson, executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.

The problem with such executive orders, he said, is that once enacted they are extremely difficult to undo. “A lot of these may appear to be arcane regulation changes,” he said. “But changing these regulations requires having to go through the Federal Register, which involves a long public comment period and reanalysis. It takes a lot of time and effort to reverse.”

Such “midnight regulations” are a last-minute ritual of most presidents. Bush’s predecessor, Bill Clinton, actually enacted more regulations at the end of his tenure than Bush is expected to, including the creation of the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. However, it is the legacy that Bush is leaving that troubles conservationists.

“It’s a parting gift from the Bush Administration that was to be expected,” said Mike Eisenfeld, air quality coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance. “It’s payback for industry.”

Of particular concern to area residents is the administration’s proposed weakening of Environmental Protection Agency power plant emissions standards. One rule, which has met opposition within the EPA itself, would change the way in which power plants measure their emissions. Currently, power plants must undergo a review when making renovations that would increase their annual emissions. Such new emissions are not allowed to exceed current annual maximum levels. However, the new Bush rule would change the limits from annual levels to hourly levels. Thus, a power plant that previously operated only half a day could conceivably operate around the clock, meaning a rise in annual emissions. According to EPA estimates, this would translate into millions of tons of additional carbon dioxide being dumped into the atmosphere annually.

“Hourly emissions standards would give false indicators,” said Eisenfeld. “The Bush Administration falters on science to the point of being an embarrassment. They throw science out the window to get the outcome they want.”

The Upper Desolation Canyon of the Green river, seen here, is among the pristine BLM wilderness lands that are being opened to gas and oil leasing under a last-minute directive from the bish Administra-tion./ Photo courtesy SUWA

A related EPA rule change would also lessen restrictions on coal-fired power plants near national parks. Currently, the Farmington area is home to two of the dirtiest coal-powered plants in the country: APS Four Corners Power Plant (ranked No. 1 dirtiest in 2006) and PNM San Juan Generating Station (ranked No. 18). However, recent pressure on these two plants to clean up has resulted in steps to reduce emissions, and Eisenfeld said he doesn’t expect them to backtrack. Rather, the new rule is a backdoor attempt to clear the way for the proposed Desert Rock Power Plant, near Shiprock.

“The Bush Administration is pushing an agenda,” he said. “They’re not looking at science, they’re just trying to pave the way for new power plants to be built in these Class I areas, such as Mesa Verde.”

Although touted as “state of the art,” Eisenfeld and other opponents say Desert Rock would only worsen the air quality problem in the Four Corners, part of which recently was declared to be a non-attainment area for ozone standards.

“There’s no reason that an area with the population the size of the Four Corners should be in non-attainment,” he said. “The last thing we need is another power plant. Mesa Verde air quality and visibility has already been diminished greatly.”

Across state lines in Utah, conservationists are also up in arms over the Bush Administration’s plans to sell oil and gas leases in pristine Bureau of Land Management lands. Such areas up for sale include Upper Desolation Canyon on the Green River as well as the culturally rich Nine Mile Canyon. Up until now, these areas have been off-limits to such activity thanks to court decisions barring the BLM from action. In fact, in a 1999 inventory, the BLM itself referred to Desolation Canyon as “a place where a visitor can experience nature of solitude …where the forces of nature continue to shape the colorful, rugged landscape.”

“What makes this action by the Interior Department so deplorable is that BLM itself determined these areas to be wilderness-quality,” said Stephen Bloch, conservation director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “Nonetheless, BLM is condemning these lands to … almost certain disqualification from future wilderness designation.”

In addition to the impacts that hundreds of miles of new roads and heavy truck traffic would have on the environment, new drilling could also do irreparable harm to countless ancient artifacts. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, more than 10,000 rock art images and 830 prehistoric sites have been documented in Nine Mile Canyon.

Roni Egan, executive director of Durango-based Great Old Broads for Wilderness, said examples of destruction can already be seen from drilling activity, dust and vibrations immediately south of Nine Mile Canyon. “They opened up part of the area to drilling last spring, and things are really suffering as a result.”

Bloch, of SUWA, goes on to point out that the Bush Administration mantra of “drill, baby, drill” doesn’t hold water in this case. Utah already has a surplus of BLM land open to leasing, with less than one-third of the state’s 4.6 million eligible acres in production. In addition, from 2001 to present day, the state approved nearly 10,000 permits to drill new oil and gas wells, but as of Sept. 30, more than a third of those had yet to be drilled.

“This give-away to oil companies borders on malfeasance,” said Bobby McEnaney, a staffer with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “When oil companies already hold millions of acres of public land under lease, but are not developing them, there is simply no reason for BLM to rush ahead with this sale lease.”

Despite the last-minute assault, conservationists say they are optimistic this will be the last attack for a while with the impending changing of the guard in Washington. “We’re all looking forward to having different people to interact with come Jan. 20,” said Pearson. •

For more on the Bush legacy, check out a recently released report by U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., “The Bush Years: A Legacy of Failure for Our Public Lands,” at http: //