by Dylan Voorhees, NRCM Clean Energy Project Director
Senator Goodall and Representative Duchesne,
Air quality remains a significant problem and a pressing concern in Maine. Despite decades of progress that began with the federal Clean Air Act, Maine today has one of the highest rates of lung disease in the country, affecting more than 120,000 citizens, including children with asthma. Most of us here know someone with asthma and the hardship it can cause—and many also know the personal cost that other serious lung diseases can take, especially on vulnerable populations such as children and the elderly. We’re all familiar with the warnings that come regularly throughout the summer: it’s another bad air day that means it is unadvisable to let children play outside for too long. It’s hard to imagine that’s the reality we live with.
The various pulmonary illnesses result in over $150 million in health care costs in this state. Fortunately some of these impacts and these costs are avoidable because they are directly attributable to air pollution that can be reduced through common sense regulations.
We like to say that less pollution is good news for everyone who breathes.
A 2009 poll conducted in Maine revealed that 84% of citizens said it was important or very important “for Maine lawmakers to take action in the next five years on improving air quality.” (1)
Air quality has other significant impacts, including the impairment of visibility at our most scenic destinations. Just like healthy outdoor play and recreation by our children, Maine’s scenic vistas are a part of our identity—whether it is looking out at Penobscot Bay from the Camden Hills or spying Mt. Katahdin from various distant vantages around the state. They are also vital to our long-term economic interests. Tourism is Maine’s largest employer, and it relies on visitors to places such as Acadia National Park, one of the most visited national parks in the country with 2 million visitors. Visitors to national parks and wilderness areas consistently rank visibility and clear scenic vistas as one of the most important aspects of their experience. Yet the average visual range today is less than one-fifth of the range that would exist under natural conditions. Maine can do better.
What these threats have in common are emissions from burning fossil fuels, in cars and trucks, power plants, and in our homes. These pollutants are familiar to you, and include NOx (which forms ozone), sulfates, and different kinds of particulate matter. Each has their own portfolio of impacts. The focus of today’s bill is sulfur. Sulfur is most well know for causing acid rain, with its severe impacts on water quality and wildlife. Ammonium sulfate causes more than 50 percent of regional visibility impairment in this part of the country. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, short-term exposure to sulfur dioxide is linked to “an array of adverse respiratory effects including bronchoconstriction and increased asthma symptoms… [and] increased visits to emergency departments and hospital admissions for respiratory illnesses, particularly in at-risk populations.” (2)
It is tempting to imagine that sulfur pollution is caused only by emissions from out of state that drift into Maine, but the truth is not so convenient. Cars, trucks and power plants—especially coal plants—from New York, Boston and further afield do contribute to Maine’s air quality problems because their population densities and total emissions levels are high. But air pollution also dissipates with distance, so emissions closer to home can be as threatening as greater emissions further away. And it doesn’t get much closer to home than… our homes. In other words, the furnaces and boilers in our basements. Perhaps more to the point, Maine must continue—as we have in the past—to do our best to reduce our own contribution to air quality problems if we expect aggressive action by other states.
In fact the bill before you today to reduce sulfur in heating oil and similar fossil fuels is part of a specific regional strategy to leverage similar policies across the Northeast. Heating oil is the second largest source of sulfur emissions regionally (behind power plants, ahead of cars and trucks.) Reducing sulfur content in heating oil also results in very significant reductions in emissions of particulate matter.
We’ve already made the switch to ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel for our cars and trucks—a move that is allowing automakers to employ much more efficient technology and reduce NOx and particulate matter pollution as well. The same opportunity is true of home heating equipment, making reduced costs for maintenance and greater energy efficiency added benefits. The sky didn’t fall when we made that shift for transportation fuels—and heating oil is almost identical to diesel from a refining perspective.
We look forward to the day when heating oil and similar petroleum products are a much smaller part of Maine’s energy picture. Right now we have the opportunity to make these fuels as clean as they can be. This bill takes the measured approach of implementing a standard four years in the future to allow producers and supplies to make the transition in an orderly way. Maine’s legislature needs to act now if we want to succeed regionally, and if we want to set a course to further improve air quality for the health of Maine people, environment and economy.
1 Critical Insights on Maine Tracking Survey; Fall 2009
2 U.S. EPA website: Health impacts of sulfur dioxide; www.epa.gov/air/sulfurdioxide/health.html