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Clean Air Delay Linked to Business Lobbying : ‘Great Mistrust’ Between Companies, AQMD Cited in State’s Slowdown of Southland Plan

Times Environmental Writer

Regional air quality officials were stunned when the state Air Resources Board recently postponed a crucial vote on a far-reaching blueprint for clean air in the Los Angeles Basin.

After five years of preparation and controversy, the South Coast Air Quality Management District governing board in March attracted worldwide interest when it approved the plan, an ambitious proposal that placed tough new air pollution controls on everything from cars to patio barbecues.

Thinking that they had overcome determined opposition from major business interests, AQMD officials believed there was no stopping their effort to rid the four-county basin of smog within 20 years. AQMD officials thought the ARB’s ratification vote was all but assured.

Instead, the state board three weeks ago rejected its own staff’s recommendation and delayed the vote 60 days. ARB chairwoman Jananne Sharpless urged the delay, explaining that the long-term success of the clean-air plan had been jeopardized by “great mistrust” between the AQMD and business interests.

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What Sharpless did not mention publicly was that Gov. George Deukmejian, who appoints the ARB board, was also “very concerned” about the air quality plan’s impact on the economy and had discussed those concerns with her only days before she called for a postponement.

In the weeks before the vote was delayed, the governor and members of his cabinet had been heavily lobbied by business interests, including the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and the California Manufacturers Assn., which had long warned that the plan would be a blow to Southern California’s economy and could cost thousands of workers their jobs.

But the lobbying did not begin or end with the governor. Indeed, business interests worked for months in Sacramento to win concessions in the air quality plan that they said they were unable to obtain from the AQMD.

* During their annual trek to Sacramento last month before the ARB vote, members of the chamber had a “substantial” conversation with the governor about the plan, chamber President Ray Remy said in an interview. Remy also acknowledged that he raised the issue when he joined Deukmejian in Mexico City in February to open a new state trade office.

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* Officials of the Western States Petroleum Assn., which represents oil refineries that would be subject to additional air pollution controls, held a series of private meetings in Sacramento with John Geoghegan, secretary of the state Business, Transportation and Housing Agency, who is also a member of the governor’s cabinet. Their objections were later raised at cabinet meetings.

* The California Manufacturers Assn. persuaded Sen. Ralph Dills (D-Gardena) to introduce a bill that critics said would have delayed the plan’s adoption. The measure was introduced just one week before the AQMD was scheduled to approve the plan in March. Later, after the AQMD approved the plan, the bill was amended to make it take effect immediately instead of in January, in order to force the state Air Resources Board this year to take additional time to gather information if necessary before approving the plan.

* The CMA also tried to have legislation introduced that would have required the Legislature to approve any increases in the AQMD budget beyond an established ceiling.

* Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich prevailed on state Sen. William Leonard (R-Big Bear) to carry a bill that would have subjected all or parts of the plan to repeal or revision by initiative or a referendum vote.

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* Antonovich also encouraged a conservative public policy research group known as the Claremont Institute to undertake a critical analysis of the air quality plan. Although the findings were disputed by the AQMD, Antonovich used them to privately lobby some ARB members two days before their decision to postpone the vote. The institute is not affiliated with the Claremont colleges.

‘Seed Money’ Used

The Claremont Institute study was funded in part with $40,000 in “seed money” from the Los Angeles County Economic Development Commission, which was created by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. The nonprofit organization is funded in part by county taxpayers and by 100 corporations. EDC president Reginald Bottger said Antonovich suggested the commission contact the Claremont Institute.

* Business lobbyists prompted state Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside)--whose efforts in 1987 gave the AQMD significant new powers--to call for Senate oversight hearings this fall on the district’s activities.

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Presley also introduced legislation requiring the district to publish each year’s new preliminary budget in advance of public hearings and preventing the district from increasing the final budget more than 10% over preliminary estimates.

All of the maneuvering demonstrated that business executives remain unconvinced they can work with the AQMD. They sought help in Sacramento because they said they could not get a fair hearing in El Monte--a point the AQMD sharply disputes.

While business interests say they support the need for a clean-air plan in principle, they want assurances that the economic costs of proposed rules are considered by AQMD along with the potential benefits. The district has estimated the plan will cost $2.79 billion a year for the first five years but industry estimates are four times higher.

The air quality management plan, which calls for the adoption of more than 120 separate air pollution controls between now and the year 2007, is divided into three tiers. The first tier includes new controls that would be imposed during the next five years. These controls are based on available technology. The second and third phases become progressively more futuristic and rely on technology that is either just around the corner--including methanol-powered cars--or rely on unforeseen technological breakthroughs.

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Effect on Transportation

By the end of 1998, for example, the plan calls for 40% of all cars and pickup trucks, 70% of all commercial freight trucks and every bus to run on alternative cleaner-burning fuels. There would be stepped-up ride-sharing, and homes would have to be built closer to employment centers, theoretically to reduce commuting.

Eventually, manufacturers of consumer products from barbecue lighter fluid to underarm deodorants would be asked to reformulate their products so they produce fewer smog-producing emissions. Tougher restrictions on emissions from major pollution sources such as power plants and oil refineries also are envisioned.

All of this has raised questions about the costs of dramatically reducing air pollution in the nation’s smoggiest air basin where ozone levels are occasionally three times higher than federal standards allow.

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But despite protests from industry, AQMD Executive Officer James M. Lents insists costs have been taken into account.

“Every major rule we’ve done has literally taken one to three years to develop. The biggest part of this debate in all of them is what is the cost and what is the air pollution result,” he said. “To me the issue is (business doesn’t) like the decisions. They want the district to make a different decision--which is don’t control them as much.”

Contributing to the mistrust have been verbal exchanges between district officials and business representatives. Lents, for example, has likened business interests to “tempters” who deal in “misinformation” and called environmentalists the “conscience” of the district.

“The district should be doing a better job building stronger ties and relationships with the business community and local government, and I don’t think they’ve been particularly successful,” chamber President Remy said.

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Gains Have Been Small

Despite their efforts, the gains made by lobbyists for business and local government this year have been slight. Business lobbyists have fallen short of their overall goal--to have major new restraints placed on the district’s activities.

Although Deukmejian forwarded the business community’s concerns about the plan’s cost to Sharpless, she said he did not suggest that the vote be delayed. That, she said, was her idea. She did so, she explained, to provide time to answer two specific questions.

The ARB ordered the AQMD to return in August with a detailed accounting of how it would take economic costs into account in adopting new air pollution controls. The AQMD also must explain how cities and counties could be counted on to cooperate.

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AQMD officials and environmental groups remain confident that the ARB will approve the plan in August without weakening it. Even industry representatives concede its approval is likely.

The Dills bill, which would have required the AQMD to prove that its air quality plan was enforceable before getting ARB approval, was introduced too late to have any impact this year. Leonard was unable to introduce the legislation sought by Antonovich to subject the air quality plan to initiatives or referendums because he missed the deadline for proposing legislation.

However, the Presley bill that would require the district to observe the same public notice requirements on its budget as other governmental agencies continues to move forward in the Senate. That bill would also allow the district to impose a $3 surcharge on motor vehicle registration fees to help fund the district’s air pollution programs.

‘Good Politics’

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Clean air remains an attractive issue to most Sacramento lawmakers. As EPA Administrator William K. Reilly said recently, “Clean air is good politics.”

“The consensus for clean air has been holding. I don’t think there’s any breach in the wall,” said John White, who lobbies for both the Sierra Club and the AQMD.

Last year, the Legislature enacted a California Clean Air Act that goes far beyond its federal counterpart and beyond President Bush’s proposals for strengthening the federal law. Moreover, the state Air Resources Board, which is appointed by the governor, recently adopted the most stringent tailpipe standards in the nation.

“Lawmakers are repeatedly asking how a bill would affect our air quality plan. They say they’re not going to sit here and start to peel off authority to prevent the AQMD from doing that,” observed Gene Fisher, an AQMD lobbyist.

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That clean air is “good politics” has not been lost on the business lobby.

“Certainly, right now a lot of people are concerned about cleaning up the air--and we’re among those,” said Robert Getts of the petroleum association.

“It makes our task much more difficult, certainly. We say you have to balance the health benefits and clean up benefits along with economic and socioeconomic costs you incur. It makes it a little more difficult to make some of those socioeconomic cases in the environment we have.”


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