Breath of Clarity

Air Quality at National Parks

Policy Recommendation to Improve Air Quality at National Parks


The current policies in place protecting National Park air quality need to be enhanced. The main purpose of the Clean Air Act (CAA), which became law in 1970, is attained through the enforcement of National Ambient Air Quality Standards (National Parks Service 2018). The 1977 amendments supplemented the legislation with particular aims to safeguard Class I watershed areas, including National Parks greater than 6,000 acres, from undergoing major deterioration because of established air pollution sources such as oil and gas drilling operations (National Parks Service 2018). The CAA explicitly mentions the government will provide the National Park Service with instruments necessary to preserve air quality and resources in parks (National Parks Service 2018). However, in 88 percent of National Parks, air pollution is constraining tree growth, impairing leaves, altering water chemistry, and limiting visibility (Yale School of the Environment 2019). Moreover, 85 percent of National Parks have degrees of air pollution hazardous to human health (Yale School of the Environment 2019). Therefore, current CAA implementation does not adequately protect the air quality at National Parks.

The problem of oil and gas drilling near National Parks presents a severe issue of environmental injustice in terms of geographical inequity which occurs in the case of one group receiving benefits of a project while another group experiences its costs. Oil and gas companies, along with their shareholders, are benefiting by using federally leased lands to extract and profit from fossil fuels. However, Gema Perez, who suffers the negative consequences of drilling, is a clean air activist living in a low-income neighborhood on the edge of Bakersfield, California nearby national parks such as Kings Canyon, Yosemite, and Sequoia (National Parks Conservation Association 2020). Her view is characterized by haze amongst thousands of acres of oil fields and refineries. Moreover, as a result of the drilling operations, Perez’s daughter developed asthma (National Parks Conservation Association 2020). That said, drilling near national parks can also present a barrier for people in surrounding low-income communities to succeed. To mitigate the geographical inequity, it is crucial to increase enforcement of Class I standards defined by the CAA. The recommended solution is to require master leasing plans of new oil and gas leases at locations near National Parks to be completed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) through the passing of H.R. 3225.

A Range of Potential Solutions

A variety of federal legislation is being designed to improve the environmentally detrimental situation of oil and gas drilling at sites close to National Parks. Considering National Parks and all their surrounding areas, aside from state parks, are federally-owned public lands, it is sensible for potential solutions to focus on passing federal legislation. H.R. 5636, the Transparency in Energy Production Act, would require companies from the oil and gas industry to both measure and publicize a detailed tracking of emissions from infrastructure and development (Library of Congress 2020). While the bill would help communicate the impact of oil and gas drilling, it is not a policy change that proactively prevents oil and gas companies from leasing the lands. It would also be difficult to implement as oil and gas companies would not necessarily be motivated to conduct the assessments and could provide inaccurate data. Further, its impact is subject to the role of science in federal policymaking as there is no guarantee displaying the effects of drilling would lead to elimination of the air pollution sources. Alternatively, H.R. 4364, the Taxpayer Fairness for Resource Development Act, would upgrade the onshore royalty rate as well as minimum bids and rental rates, guaranteeing taxpayers get a reasonable amount of money for industry uses on public lands (Library of Congress 2020). The solution would bring money to the communities suffering from geographical inequity due to the issue, as well as de-incentivize the oil and gas companies from leasing. However, it would also not confront the problem of air pollution near National Parks because it results in oil and gas companies still conducting their operations insofar as they have the funds to do so.

Thirdly, S. 3202, the End Speculative Oil and Gas Leasing Act, would require the BLM to evaluate the mineral development potential before offering them for lease (Library of Congress 2020). The act would stop the BLM from leasing any land with little to no development potential (Library of Congress 2020). While it makes progress in terms of creating a future where oil and gas drilling is limited based upon development potential, it does not take into account the environmental impact drilling has on the nearby National Parks. That said, all three solutions are inadequate because they do not combat the problem’s source.

Policy Recommendation

On the other hand, H.R. 3225, the Restoring Community Input and Public Protections in Oil and Gas Leasing Act, is a sound bill that would decrease air pollution at National Parks. The recommendation is technically a revision in regulation as H.R. 3225 is a bill in place to amend the Mineral Leasing Act (Library of Congress 2020). Crucially, the passing of the H.R. 3225 would reinstate master leasing plans (Library of Congress 2020). Master leasing plans for proposed drilling projects would entail determining whether areas adjacent to National Parks are actually appropriate for oil and gas development which involves taking foreseen environmental impacts of the development into account before selling a lease. Furthermore, the law would require the BLM to involve all parties, including both the oil and gas drilling companies as well as the public, which would level out the playing field of stakeholders in the leasing process (Library of Congress 2020). That said, implementation of H.R. 3225 would bring in the potential for the local communities to resist oil and gas leasing near National Parks which would improve the air pollution problem. From there, results from the environmental reviews, including public input, would empower the BLM to make a logical decision that takes air quality in its National Parks into account before leasing. Further, the act would put regulation in place that would reduce the opportunity for oil and gas companies to lease lands. H.R. 3225 restricts the amount of times per year that the lands are eligible for leasing. The result would be a decrease in the amount of leasing which would result in less development of drilling infrastructure ever being started. Moreover, H.R. 3225 explicitly grants allowance for the Secretary to establish a higher national minimum acceptable bid (Library of Congress 2020). De-incentivizing oil and gas companies from leasing would help decrease the amount of leasing which would result in less drilling operations and consequentially less air pollution. Thirdly, the act would also limit the size of units that the United States Secretary is permitted to lease (Library of Congress 2020). The result would be a reduction in the amount of air pollution as a given project will produce more emissions if it is expanded. Considering the theoretical logic of the bill in terms of combatting the defined problem, it is crucial to outline how the policy’s success is going to be measured after it is passed. The recommended assessment tool is to require master leasing plans are completed for all BLM lands within 100 miles of National Parks. Contracts for oil and gas companies to lease the land within 100 miles of National Parks must clarify a master leasing plan was conducted. As a result, by definition of a master leasing plan, the counterparts are going to be able to determine whether the land is appropriate for leasing with environmental factors considered. With sound components and strengthened implementation, H.R. 3225 effectively provides a proactive solution to the air pollution problem at National Parks. Yet, there are still massive obstacles to the H.R. 3225 bill becoming law as the solution is dependent on a consensus in federal government to pass and enforce it. Originally, H.R. 3225 was introduced June 12th 2019 (Library of Congress 2020). Subsequently, the bill was referred to the Subcommittee on Energy and Minerals where a hearing was held and the members voted by the Yeas and Nays: 20-15 (Library of Congress 2020). Considering the nation’s new President-elect Joe Biden would likely sign it into law based on his platform (Lee and Magil 2020), the bill’s passing depends on its appeal to the House of Representatives and Senate.

What Will it Take to Pass H.R. 3225 in the House of Representatives?

Although all 20 sponsors of the H.R. 3225 are Democrats, the nonpartisan support of environmental issues in the House of Representatives was shown by its consensus leading to the passing of recent climate bills. In the eyes of former Republican Representative Mark Sanford from South Carolina, the benefits of energy production from oil and gas drilling are simply not worth the threat to that state’s $13 billion tourism economy (Lund 2018). Further, Republican Representative Bruce Poliquin from Maine echoed Sanford by mentioning how offshore drilling threatens the state’s costal resources (Lund 2018). To sum it up, Democrat Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson from Texas made a statement emphasizing climate research and development initiatives serve as the foundation of the House of Representative’s effort to mitigate crises and drive economic growth (U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology 2020). The House of Representatives are also proposing legislation aligned with their views. For example, in May 2019, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 9, the Climate Action Now Act, which would require the U.S. to cut emissions at the rate originally set by the Paris Agreement, (Library of Congress 2020). Then, in September 2020, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 4447, the Clean Economy Jobs and Innovation Act (Library of Congress 2020). Clearly, the Republican members within the House of Representatives can be persuaded to support H.R. 3225 by showing science can be used to make policy decisions that support the nation’s economy. Considering the respect the House of Representatives have for the legitimacy of science and its application to advancing the nation’s economy, non-governmental groups play a significant role in diligently persuading members with the use of scientific data. A specific way to persuade the House of Representatives to pass a bill, particularly related to energy production, is to show its members the TedTalk presented by Avory Lovins. He emphasized the economic benefits of the drilling’s alternative which is renewable energy. Lovins (2019) specifically conveyed a transition to renewable energy that can be achieved by 2050 costs $5 trillion dollars less than using oil and gas. His account was grounded upon the strategy of figuring out where the business logic is not flowing properly and sticking needles into the issues. Moreover, the California Council on Science and Technology provided research which found that fracking can poison drinking water with its toxic chemicals (Cannon 2019). The same report declared that adding fracking wells would require 80 million gallons of water per year, which is a concern for residents who face drinking water shortages (Cannon 2019). Particularly, in the dry states of the West, science could play a crucial role in showing how drilling would exacerbate the state’s brutal water crisis in the face of climate change which is a pressing problem according to the U.S. House of Representatives proposed H.R. 9 bill. While passing H.R. 3225 in the House is clearly feasible, the bill is relatively more difficult to pass in the Senate.

What Will it Take to Pass H.R. 3225 in the Senate?

The members of Senate who support drilling near National Parks are heavily driven by their relationship to the campaign funds provided by fossil fuel industry. Particularly, members of the Senate have reminded Trump of his obligation to campaign donors from the fossil fuel industry. In 2017, there were letters from 22 republican senators to the President urging him to leave the Paris Agreement. The same 22 senatorial campaigns used over $10 million from oil, gas, and coal companies since 2012 (McCarthy and Gambino 2017). In the past three election cycles, over $90 million in untraceable money has been devoted to Republican candidates from oil, gas and coal interests (Center for Responsive Politics 2020). That said, swaying Senate republicans who are in favor of pro-drilling legislation is not easy. However, influencing specific Republican Senators who have expressed signs of favoring the bill would be a strategic way to approach the endeavor. The passing of the Great American Outdoors Act was a display of bipartisanship providing $9.5 billion over the next five years to support America’s National Parks. The deal came about because the Republican party aimed to save the Senate seats held by Republican Senators Cory Gardner from Colorado and Steve Daines from Montana, as voters in those states have largely opposed efforts to roll back environmental protections (Library of Congress 2020). Further, elected officials across parties on the east coast have expressed interest in halting nearby drilling. Maine’s Congressional delegation, made up of Independent Senator Angus King and Republican Senator Susan Collins opposed efforts to open the coast to drilling based on its significant risk to the state’s marine and coastal resources (Lund 2018). Allocating resources towards lobbying at the offices of these specific politicians is a strategy to pass H.R. 3225 in the Senate. During the persuasion efforts, it is crucial to keep in mind science plays a stronger role in convincing the House of Representatives compared to the Senate, as the latter is more so persuaded using techniques that address the bureaucratic feature of the situation. Furthermore, in March 2020, the Senate introduced S. 3488 to prohibit the Department of the Interior from reducing rents or royalties that the government receives for the production of fossil fuel resources on leased public lands (Library of Congress 2020). The Senate’s bill aligns with H.R. 3225, as the latter permits the Secretary to establish a higher national minimum acceptable bid. While H.R. 3225 would lead to less oil and gas drilling leases being approved in general, the collaboration of both bills would result in government acquisition of more funds for projects that are approved by the master leasing plans because rent would not be reduced and could potentially increase. Identifying the common interest between the House and Senate is crucial to passing H.R. 3225, and, in turn, solving the air pollution problem at National Parks.


Air pollution stemming from oil and gas drilling near National Parks degrades the condition of parks and harms the health of nearby communities. While a range of potential federal legislation acknowledges a breadth of issues related to air quality in National Parks, the recommended solution is to increase enforcement of CAA Class I standards by passing H.R. 3225 due to its proactive approach and direct relationship to the problem. Crucially, the bill would reinstate master leasing plans and assess whether they are conducted to evaluate all potential leases within 100 miles of National Parks. The focus remains on leveraging the strong role science plays in terms of influencing members of the House of Representatives as well as lobbying at specific Republican Senatorial offices who expressed support of National Parks and their resources. From there, further research entails investigating agenda-setting strategies for the purpose of making H.R. 3225 a priority for President-elect Biden to sign into law.


Cannon, Gabrielle. 2019. “Trump plans to allow fracking near California’s national parks”. The Guardian. Accessed November 6.

Center for Responsive Politics. 2020. “Oil and Gas: Long-Term Contribution Trends”. Accessed November 4.

Lee, Stephen and Bobby Magill. 2020. “Biden to Move Fast to Strike Down Trump’s Environmental Agenda”. Bloomberg Law. Accessed November 11.

Lund, Nicholas. 2018. “Courting Disaster”. National Parks Conservation Association. Accessed October 2.

Library of Congress. 2020. “H.R. 3225”. Accessed November 11. Library of Congress. 2020. “H.R. 4364”. Accessed November 11.

Library of Congress. 2020. “H.R. 5636”. Accessed November 11. Library of Congress. 2020. “S. 3302”. Accessed November 11.

Library of Congress. 2020. “S. 3488”. Accessed November 11. Lovins, Amory. 2019. “A 40-Year Plan for Energy.” TED. Accessed October 17, 2020.

National Parks Conservation Association. 2020. “Polluted Parks: How America is Failing to Protect Our National Parks, People & Planet from Air Pollution”. Accessed November 4.

National Parks Service. 2018. “National Parks and the Clean Air Act”. Accessed October 2.

McCarthy, Tom and Lauren Gambino. 2017. “The Republicans who Urged Trump to Pull out of Paris Deal are Big Oil Darlings”. The Guardian. Accessed November 4.

United States House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology. 2020. “House Passes Legislation to Address Climate Change by Investing in Clean Energy Research and Development”. Accessed November 11.

Yale School of the Environment. 2019. “Dangerously High Pollution Levels Found in Most U.S. National Parks”. Accessed October 2.