Smog: Thinking It Over

The state Air Resources Board has delayed approval of Southern California's ambitious clean-air plan because it can't figure out how some of it is supposed to work. Some business lobbyists in company with an odd politician here and there are hoping the delay may somehow be permanent. But with the summer sun about to brew up a new season of smog, critics are not likely to make many converts with their message that the region can't afford clean air. In fact, put to good use, the 60-day delay might well shore up an already sizable demonstration of good feeling about the plan.

It would be useful, for example, to give people time to remember that an earlier generation of business lobbyists fought a bitter losing battle against the first primitive steps toward smog controls in Southern California decades ago. They could also use that time to ponder what Southern California's air would be like now if the early critics had come out on top.

By August, when the Sacramento board next addresses the smog plan, Congress likely will have crushed any hope polluters may have that the rules will be changed enough to let polluting businesses off the hook. Nor is Congress likely to alter the law's basic premise that dirty air is unhealthful and that the first concern is health and not economics. The only change in Washington, in fact, is that President Bush has signed on to virtually every goal set for Southern California by the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

Southern California Edison Co. has abandoned its head-on assault against the district's plan. Critics now concentrate on raising questions about the plan's effect on the lives of millions of residents in the counties covered by the plan--Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino.

The vast majority of jobs in the region are in companies with fewer than 50 employees, companies that critics contend will not be able to afford clean-air controls and will move out, taking the jobs with them.

Nearly every projection of job growth in Southern California over the next 20 years shows net gains of up to 3 million, with the cost of clean-air controls having a marginal effect.

For now, the district's plan is more a set of goals than a detailed blueprint. The district's governing board will move Southern California toward those goals by adopting, one by one, more than 100 rules designed, among other things, to clamp down on emissions, encourage change in commuter habits and set guidelines for cities as they plan the use of land to minimize pollution.

The district staff will be obliged to make its best guess before each new rule is adopted what its social and economic effect will be.

It makes good sense for Southern California to feel its way along like that--not march to any particular drum--as it tries to carry out the most challenging clean-air plan ever devised. As with the air itself, we are all in this together--planners, politicians, businessmen, regulators and other citizens alike--and that, too, is worth thinking about during the next few weeks.

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