Last week, while Gov. Jerry Brown, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and a host of California leaders held court at a United Nations climate summit in Paris, touting the state's progress toward cutting greenhouse gases, a group of Southern California officials decided to make it easier for oil refineries, power plants and other big industrial operations to keep spewing smoggy emissions.
The governing board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District on Friday rejected a staff recommendation that would have forced major polluters to cut more emissions of smog-generating chemicals sooner. Instead, the increasingly polluter-accommodating board voted for a weaker industry-backed plan. Board members sided with oil industry lobbyists, even as the staff made clear that the region could be sued for failing to protect public health. This kind of backsliding on clean air goals is unacceptable.
Last week's vote was aimed at reforming the region's 22-year-old RECLAIM program, one of the nation's first cap-and-trade efforts. It was designed to be a market-based solution that would give businesses flexibility in meeting emission-reduction targets. RECLAIM set a limit on smog-forming nitrogen oxides at each site, then allowed facilities that cut more than required to sell emissions credits to those that didn't meet their limits.
But critics complained that there were too many cheap credits on the market that companies could buy instead of cutting pollution from their facilities. Indeed, AQMD staff said some oil refineries have been able to increase their emissions by buying credits from a closed cement plant. Nitrogen oxide levels have not fallen in the last seven years, and the region has missed smog-cutting deadlines set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Staff had sought to lower the 56 plants' nitrogen-oxide emissions to 12.5 tons per day by 2023, or half the current limit. The board, however, voted to lower the limit more gradually, just to 14.5 tons per day.
Board members who voted for the weaker plan said it still delivered big pollution reductions but was easier and cheaper by at least $1 billion for the industry. L.A. Councilman Joe Buscaino, who is Garcetti's appointee to the AQMD and who seconded the industry-backed proposal, called it a "compromise." But the RECLAIM program is already a compromise; if the AQMD had relied on conventional, rigid mandates to reduce pollution, most refineries and other polluters probably would already have installed up-to-date equipment to cut emissions. And while two tons per day may not sound like much, the change will force the region to seek deeper cuts from other sources that will be harder to achieve.
The AQMD has long been considered a national leader in innovative and aggressive regulation. It had to be just to meet federal air quality standards. But while Southern California has significantly cut air pollution, this remains the smoggiest region in the nation. Residents here, particularly in the Inland Empire, still suffer from unhealthful air that can permanently damage children's lungs and puts adults at greater risk of heart attacks and strokes. Yet there is concern that a new Republican majority on the board, with members eager to lift regulatory burdens on business, will slow the region's clean air gains. The board must focus on protecting public health, not industry profits.
California officials also take pride in the state's aggressive leadership on global climate change. But environmental leadership begins at home. Garcetti, Brown, incoming Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and Senate Pro Tem Kevin de Leon — who all can appoint AQMD board members — have a responsibility to ensure local air quality regulations are equally aggressive.