For decades Big Bend's stunning vistas have been compromised by poor air quality that Texas, working with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, is supposed to address.
Big Bend national park is Texas at its most cinematic, with soaring, jagged forest peaks looming over vast desert lowlands, at once haughty and humble, prickly and pretty. It is also among the most remote places in the state.
Even from Alpine, the town of 6,000 that is the main gateway to the park, it is more than an hour’s drive to one of the entrances.
So far from anywhere, it might seem an unlikely location to be scarred by air pollution. Yet for decades its stunning vistas have been compromised by poor air quality that Texas, working with the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is supposed to address.
But environmental advocates fear that the Trump administration’s pro-coal agenda will derail the prospects of improvement, at least in the short term. Tuesday’s announcement that the EPA plans to abandon the 2015 Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions came less than two weeks after the agency revealed a revised plan to combat regional haze in Texas and Oklahoma that critics say will do little to cut pollution.
Chrissy Mann, Austin-based senior campaign representative with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said: “Taken in combination with the Clean Power Plan, what we’re seeing is an attempt from this administration and this EPA to dig in their pockets and find whatever kind of tricks they think are going to stick to provide a lifeline to the coal industry across the country and here in Texas. It’s disappointing.”
Texas is part of a multi-state coalition that sued to stop the Clean Power Plan, which was placed on hold by the US supreme court last year.
Ken Paxton, the Texas attorney general, said in a statement: “It’s gratifying that our lawsuit against Obama-era federal overreach was a catalyst for repeal of the plan. We look forward to working with the administration to craft a new strategy that will protect the environment without hurting jobs and the economy.”
A back-and-forth between the EPA and Texas over regional haze has been in motion since 1999, when the agency launched a concerted effort to deal with the problem, bidding to improve the air quality in Big Bend national park, Guadalupe Mountains national park and in Oklahoma, the home state of the EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt.
In 2009, the state enforcer, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, issued a plan that would restore “natural visibility” to Big Bend by the year 2155. That was rejected as inadequate by the EPA in 2014.
The EPA wanted Texas to cut 230,000 tons of sulphur dioxide emissions per year to improve visibility and reduce the risk of worsening respiratory diseases and heart disease and damaging soil, water, fish and wildlife.
Two years later, finding “Texas relied on an analysis that obscured the benefits of potentially cost-effective controls”, the EPA replaced parts of Texas’s emissions plan, calling for plant upgrades and a target of “natural visibility” by 2064.
Texas sued the agency and won a stay of implementation in a federal appeals court. The state argued that it is making reasonable progress and, along with industry representatives, claimed that enacting the structural improvements – notably fitting some electricity plants with sulphur dioxide scrubbers – would cost $2bn and be a backdoor way of forcing the closure of coal-fired power plants. That, it said, might put the state at risk of power shortages and increased prices for consumers.
Last December, in the sunset days of the Obama administration, the EPA proposed another scheme that would also have required older plants to upgrade their technology.
But in August this year, Pruitt’s EPA asked a federal court for more time – until the end of 2018 – to come up with a way forward. When the judge refused, on 29 September the EPA unveiled a path that is much more palatable for Texas and the power companies: one that wouldn’t require retrofitting, instead claiming to achieve comparable results with an intrastate cap-and-trade programme. That would give polluters allowances within an overall emissions budget that can be used or traded in a marketplace.
Such programmes can be effective, but Mann, of the Sierra Club, contends that the cap is too high so will not provide any incentive for meaningful reductions. “It’s not very aggressive. In other words, the amount of pollution that coal plants in Texas are allowed to produce is actually higher than our emissions from last year from the same coal plants, taken all together,” Mann said.
The National Park Service and EPA carried out a study in 1999 to understand what causes haze in Big Bend, which is worse in the warmer months. It found that sulphate particles formed from sulphur dioxide sources such as coal power plants and refineries were a key cause.
Researchers discovered that substantial amounts of sulphate particulates came not only from Texas and Mexico, but the distant eastern US. When air flows from the east, production in America’s coal heartlands has an effect on Big Bend’s scenery.
Even if Trump’s efforts to boost coal collide with economic reality and market forces spur more growth in renewable energy, any delays in transitioning to cleaner energy and reduced emissions prolong the haze problem.
Air quality has not improved and ozone has seen a slight deterioration over the past decade, according to Jeffery Bennett, physical sciences program coordinator at the park. “Nitrogen deposition has not changed and remains a significant concern. Desert landscapes are especially sensitive to nitrogen,” he wrote in an email in July.
“Mercury is an emerging concern,” he added, based on levels found in fish; it is unclear whether this is because of atmospheric deposition or the legacy of nearby abandoned mercury mines.
The park faces Mexico and since Donald Trump entered the White House it has attracted attention as a particularly unsuitable place to build a wall.
Still, in a few years, tourists might find that while Trump might have failed to wall off the Big Bend from Mexico, the view is blocked all the same. “If you’re standing here in Panther Junction and not able to see the Sierra del Carmen that’s 20 miles away, because of the sulphates and other pollutions that blew in, you’re missing a big part of why this became a park,” Jennette Jurado, the park’s public information officer, said earlier this year at the main visitor centre.