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Clean Air Battle Begins In DC Courtroom

Uintah basin topical map
The Uintah Basin is well-known for oil and gas development.

Utah found itself in the middle of a struggle between states, environmental advocates, energy companies and a federal regulatory agency on Tuesday  

Oral arguments were heard in the District of Columbia’s Circuit Court of Appeals, where environmentalists and clean-air advocates challenged the Environmental Protection Agency’s ozone classification of Utah’s Uintah Basin.

The environmentalist advocates contend it is no coincidence that Uintah Basin is also home to oil and gas development and some of the worst air quality in the state, and the EPA’s designation is incorrect.

Jeremy Nichols is the climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians, the Denver, Colo. based environmental interest group that brought the suit. He argues the EPA’s classification defies a widely-held consensus that the Uintah Basin’s air quality is poor. He claims this fact is even recognized by the energy industry itself.

“The key provision of the Clean Air Act ensures that areas that are polluted get cleaned up in a reasonable amount of time, public health is protected and that areas that are clean are declared to be clean. In this case the EPA couldn’t even make a clean air determination, they had to make a designation that air quality in the area was unclassifiable, effectively putting the region into limbo.

"They claimed the monitoring data that was used was “non-regulatory." They didn’t question the credibility of the monitoring data or the legitimacy of it and the EPA, Utah and the industry acknowledge that there is an ozone problem in this region. Rather than act on that and require a clean-up of this mess, the agency claims that the monitors, because they were operated by industry, could not be relied on to make this dirty air designation,” he said.  

The Western Energy Alliance, an interest group devoted to oil and natural gas development in the Western states, filed a brief in the case as an intervener in support of the EPA. Kathleen Sgamma, the WEA’s VP of government and public affairs said the early data collected by industry monitors does not meet the 2008 Clean Air Act’s legal standards, and that environmentalists are asking the EPA to violate the law.

“The EPA, working with the state, put in place quality-assured regulatory monitors. There is process in the Clean Air Act whereby data is quality assured, verified and three years of data are needed before a designation can be made.

"The EPA is going through that process, though WildEarth Guardians and Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance are suing to force them to use data that was not quality-assured in order to designate the Uintah Basin for ozone earlier than is allowed by the Clean Air Act," Scama said.

The EPA is currently working on a lower ozone standard, which would trigger another round of designations, and if the most recent standard is any indication, another round of courtroom battles.