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Vote could speed 11 new power plants in Southland

Times Staff Writer

Southern California air quality regulators approved rule changes Friday that could speed the construction of 11 or more power plants across the region -- a decision that could bring an estimated $419 million to public coffers.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District board, in an 8-3 vote, gave power plant developers the opportunity buy credits to offset the pollution that would be released by the new facilities. The credits were originally intended for schools, hospitals and other emergency agencies.

The vote came after months of lengthy, contentious hearings -- including six hours of testimony Friday -- and appeared to satisfy neither environmentalists nor plant developers.

“It’s outrageous. Our air district has assumed the role of polluter proponent. They seem to have forgotten they are the air quality district, in charge of protecting public health and the environment,” said Tim Grabiel, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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Dozens of community members picketed outside the board’s headquarters in Diamond Bar before the meeting. Many testified that their potentially affected neighborhoods were already suffering from asthma, lung cancer and other respiratory ailments from industry.

But Mike Carroll, an attorney representing half a dozen of the proposed power plants -- including a fiercely contested 943-megawatt facility in Vernon -- said the conditions placed on credits by the board could make it too costly to build some of the plants.

“I have a lot of ambivalence,” he said. “We are happy the board recognizes the need for additional power generation.... However, they put so many restrictions on us ... it could potentially kill the project.”

The plants also need approval from state energy regulators. Other communities where plants are proposed include Victorville, Carson, Industry, El Segundo, Grand Terrace, Riverside and Sun Valley.

The board is considering using the profits to fund alternative-energy incentives and studies on pollution health risks, but put off that decision.

Developers would be required to pay $92,000 per pound of coarse particulates they would emit and $34,000 per pound of sulfur oxide. Both substances contribute to air pollution that plagues the Los Angeles Basin. Plant owners also would be required to buy enough pollution credits to offset cancer risks at a higher rate than is required under federal or state law, Carroll said.

Former state Sen. Martha Escutia, who lobbied board members in favor of allowing the Vernon power plant to buy the credits, praised the decision. “It’s basically a vote to ensure energy reliability in the region,” she said.

Board members voting in favor of the credits sale agreed with her and AQMD staff that new plants would help prevent electricity outages and might replace older, dirtier power plants.

“As our region continues to grow, we will need more clean energy to prevent rolling blackouts,” board Chairman William A. Burke said. “Today’s measures will help minimize the impact of new power plants, especially in low-income, environmental justice communities and other areas already subject to high levels of air pollution.”

But board member Jane Carney, an attorney from Riverside who voted against the rule changes, said, “There is no current evidence I’ve heard that there is a need for [large] plants.... There is no crisis.”

Representatives from two state agencies testified that there was no immediate need for additional power, but that there could be in coming years as older plants break down or are retired.

The nonprofit California Independent System Operator found that about 10,000 megawatts are needed in the Los Angeles Basin, and that about 12,000 megawatts are available. The California Energy Commission found that about 400 additional megawatts will be needed annually in coming years.

New power plants are “needed as a preventive measure. Even though we may not be in a power crisis today, it takes at least four to five years to plan for and construct a power plant, and thus we can’t afford to wait until we’re in a crisis to take steps to increase generating capacity,” said AQMD spokesman Sam Atwood.

A backdrop for the hearing was the battle over what type of electricity will replace coal power, which is being phased out under state law. Natural gas-fired plants are a proven technology but still emit greenhouse gases; wind, solar and other renewable sources are less reliable but cleaner.

“These rules will allow more annual carbon dioxide emissions than what is generated by 107 countries around the world,” said Angela Johnson Meszaros, an attorney with California Communities Against Toxics. “The impacts of these rules are staggering in terms of human health, local air quality and global climate.”

Under the rules, she said, AQMD will allow more than 35 billion pounds per year of carbon dioxide emissions -- the greenhouse gas believed to be the biggest contributor to global warming.

Even some who voted for the credit program expressed concerns about the Vernon project in particular, and the use of power from fossil fuel in general.

“Don’t think you guys are the heroes here.... I think you’re trying to create a cash cow for your city that will impact the health of your neighbors downwind,” Chino Mayor Dennis Yates, a board member, said to Vernon officials, noting that the city stood to reap hefty profits by selling surplus power.

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janet.wilson@latimes.com


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