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Southern California doesn't have the money to buy its way to clean air

Southern California doesn't have the money to buy its way to clean air
Visitors to Griffith park take in a smoggy L.A. Basin in October of 2014. Emissions from cars, trucks, ships, power plants and industrial facilities are falling, but California remains far from meeting air quality standards. (Los Angeles Times)

The Southern California agency responsible for cleaning up the region's smoggy air has a new strategy to cut pollution: Hope and plead for money to buy cleaner cars and trucks.

To comply with federal law, the South Coast Air Quality Management District issued a blueprint last week outlining the rules, policies and programs the agency would enact to cut pollution dramatically enough for the nation's smoggiest region to finally meet federal Clean Air Act standards by 2023. Instead, the plan the AQMD released relies on billions of dollars in currently nonexistent incentives to encourage businesses and individuals to switch to low-emissions cars, trucks and other equipment. It's another troubling sign that the agency, operating under a new Republican-majority board of directors whose members have pledged to reduce environmental regulations, is backsliding on clean air and protecting public health.

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The new smog-cutting plan favors voluntary efforts first and regulations only if the incentives don’t reduce pollution. But that could be too late.


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Although incentives have always been a useful, and even necessary, tool for cutting emissions, the AQMD's avowedly business-friendly approach largely abandons new regulations in favor of voluntary and government-funded pollution reductions. That essentially pushes the burden of cleaning the air from the polluter to the taxpayer.

And there's another, more practical problem with such a heavy reliance on incentives: Where's the money? The AQMD plan calls for $1 billion a year for incentives, and the agency would request funding from the Congress, as well as the state, to subsidize the program. The district currently receives only $50 million to $100 million a year in incentive funding. California's cap-and-trade program, which is the primary source of potential funding for clean-vehicle incentives, is in limbo, and the money could dry up if a court invalidates the program or lawmakers don't reach a deal to extend it beyond 2020.

The idea that the Republican-controlled Congress — which can't even agree to spend more on a public health emergency like the Zika virus — is going to budget hundreds of millions of dollars a year for an environmental incentives program in California, is delusional.

To be sure, the AQMD has an extremely difficult job. The agency has the authority to regulate stationary sources of pollution, like power plants, factories and refineries. But 88% of the region's smog-forming pollution is created by vehicles, which are regulated by the state and federal government. While the state has adopted some strong rules for cleaner cars, the federal government hasn't done nearly enough to cut pollution from planes, trains, ships and interstate trucks. Last month the AQMD, along with other cities, petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to require that new interstate trucks be built with much cleaner engines. That alone could cut 90% of the truck pollution in the region in 25 years. State and federal lawmakers have to step up, but regional leaders can't put public health on hold while waiting for assistance.

In the past, the AQMD has tried to widen its regulatory net to require companies in Southern California to use vehicles that pollute less. Environmental groups have pushed the agency to do it again, possibly by requiring large warehouses, ports, rail yards and other facilities to switch to the cleanest trucks and equipment. Yet the new smog-cutting plan favors voluntary efforts first and regulations only if the incentives don't reduce pollution. But that could be too late. Southern California could miss another deadline to clean up the smog and residents will continue to breathe unhealthy air.

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