Will: Environment policy may hurt Arizona

By George Will, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

Published:

 

The federal government is a bull that has found yet another china shop, this time in Arizona. It seems determined to inflict, for angelic motives and progressive goals, economic damage on this state. And economic and social damage on Native Americans, who, over the years, have experienced quite enough of that at Washington's hands.

The gain? The most frequently cited study says "research to date … is inconclusive as to whether" there would be "any perceptible improvement in visibility at the Grand Canyon and other areas of concern." The Environmental Protection Agency says the Navajo Generating Station is "near" 11 national parks, several of which are 175 miles distant.

The NGS, on Navajo land in Arizona, burns coal from the Kayenta Mine, which is co-owned by the Navajo and Hopi nations. The EPA is pondering whether all three units of the NGS should be required to install the "best available" emission control technologies, perhaps costing more than $1.1 billion. More than 80 percent of the power plant's employees are Navajo. In 2007, the percentage of the Navajo Nation's population living in poverty was 36.7.

But the Navajos, the plant and the mine that powers it might be sacrificed to this dubious environmental crusade. The new technology would reduce nitrate aerosols, which are responsible for just 4 percent of "light extinction" at the Grand Canyon.

Water falls unbidden from the sky but must be pumped to Arizonans. The NGS provides 95 percent of the power for the pumps of the Central Arizona Project, which made Phoenix and most of modern Arizona possible. A study sponsored by the Interior Department estimates that the EPA's mandate might increase the cost of water by as much as 32 percent. They might be driven back to using scarce ground water, which was supposed to be protected by the CAP.

An Arizona State University study estimates that between now and 2044, the NGS and the mine will contribute $20 billion to the state's economy and provide 3,000 jobs each year … if there is an NGS. Its site lease expires in 2019. If the EPA mandates the most expensive technologies, each of the NGS owners would have to weigh whether it is sensible to make large capital investments in a plant that might not operate after that. Furthermore, one of the six owners of the NGS is the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which might be prohibited by California law from making investments that will extend the life of coal-fired plants.

Testifying to Congress in February, an EPA official, quoting President Barack Obama, that it is a "false debate" that we have to choose between the "public health benefits" and "growing this economy." But benefits have costs. How much government do you want, and how much are you willing to pay for it in diminished economic growth? The Obama administration consistently favors more government and is mystified by sluggish growth.

In 1990, Congress passed the Clean Air Act Amendments, which mandated restoration of visibility in parks and wilderness areas to natural conditions. What is "natural?" The EPA writes regulations to that end. Others must live with these regulations while minimizing the damage the regulations cause.