Air board sets path to reduce emissions

Times Staff Writer

The hearing in the low-ceilinged auditorium in El Monte was packed Thursday with the usual contingent of lobbyists for oil refiners, landfill operators, electric utilities and cement manufacturers.

There was little hint, among the PowerPoint slides and the turgid drone of engineers, that it was a seminal moment in California environmental history.

But by unanimous vote, the California Air Resources Board adopted a number that will ultimately drive the operations and habits of every industry, business, farm, household and automobile in the Golden State.


The board’s decision that 427 million metric tons of greenhouse gas were released over California in 1990 effectively launched a massive scientific and regulatory effort aimed at combating climate change that scientists say is threatening the planet.

As board Chairwoman Mary Nichols put it, “This was the crucial first step: Now California can lead the nation in the effort to slash greenhouse gases.”

California’s 2006 landmark global warming law, the first in the nation, requires that, 13 years from now, the state reduce its emissions of planet-heating carbon dioxide and other gases to 1990 levels.

But what were those levels? That’s the question that scores of state, federal and industry economists and engineers finally determined after a year of feverish data-mining involving 13,000 separate calculations.

Air board staffers looked at every economic sector, from aviation to timber. They figured out how much carbon was stored in forests, and even in the discarded lumber in landfills. They calculated the mix of power purchases from hydroelectric dams in Washington state versus coal-fired plants in Utah.

They counted the number of cows and horses living in the state 17 years ago, and how much methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, seeped out of their front and back ends.

Changing directions won’t be easy: Greenhouse emissions have risen an estimated 13% since 1990. The air board figures that if nothing were done, emissions would rise to 600 million metric tons in 13 years. To reach 1990 levels by 2020, the state will have to slash emissions by 30% over projected levels.

And that’s only the beginning: Globally, planet-heating gases will have to be cut 80% by mid-century, scientists say, to avoid the worst effects of climate change, including rising sea levels, melting snow caps and glaciers, spreading deserts, water shortages and species extinction.

Besides setting the reduction target, the board Thursday enacted complex rules to require more than 800 large industrial plants to report how much greenhouse gas they emit, the first such regulation in the nation. The 800 sources, covering 94% of the state’s emissions, include electric generators and marketers, oil refineries and cement plants -- any industrial outlet that emits more than 25,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide and other gases each year.

Several industry representatives at the hearing disagreed with the electric power calculations or said that their particular industry was too heavily targeted.

Environmentalists in attendance wanted the board to prevent companies from using state trade-secrets law to hide the data behind their reports. But both sides praised the staff’s work and public outreach.

“You can only manage what you measure,” said Devra Wang of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “These regulations are just a start.”

Beyond its statewide regulatory efforts, the board unveiled an initiative to help cities and counties inventory their greenhouse gas emissions and adopt proven strategies to cut them. The air board has declared that it will look at state regulation of land use, traditionally a local responsibility, in order to meet greenhouse gas targets.

“To get to 2020 is going to require major changes in behavior,” said board member Daniel Sperling.

More than 100 cities in California have joined a national pledge to cut their greenhouse gas emissions, but confusion over how to accomplish the goal is widespread. California’s 2006 landmark Global Warming Solutions Act, AB 32, has placed the state in the forefront of the global-warming battle at a time when the Bush administration has been reluctant to enact regulation.

The White House has been fighting a 2002 California law to regulate carbon dioxide from vehicle tailpipes, although 15 other states say they would adopt the same rules.