Southern California regulators soften pollution requirements on refineries

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In one of the largest-ever cuts to oxides from nitrogen-oxide emissions (NOx), local air regulators voted on Friday to shave allowances from 56 facilities by 12 tons per day.

Environmental groups concerned about air pollution were far from satisfied, however, as the amended vote eliminated many of the recommendations originally made by staff of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, including a reduction target of 14 tons per day by 2023.

“We didn’t get what we needed,” said Marina Barragan, a community organizer for the Sierra Club. “It’s been a harsh week. It feels like we’re getting punched from all ends.”

Barragan and dozens of other activists attended a packed meeting of the governing board for the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Many wore matching T-shirts and raised hands in support of public speakers who called for the board to adopt the original 14 ton-per-day reduction.

About 60 people took the opportunity to speak during the public hearing.

Opponents of the measure also came to show their support, many in jumpsuits to indicate their employment with refineries and other heavy industry.

Officials with the petroleum industry said they were satisfied with the decision.

“We’re very thankful that at least we have a balance. It’s an expensive and aggressive one, but we’re up for the challenge,” said Cathy Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association.

Boyd said the costs associated with a 14-ton-per-day reduction would’ve been $800 million more than the 12-ton-per-day decision. She said the cost savings to industry would allow more people to remain employed.

“The really important thing is the people we employ, which is 235,000 employees in Southern California,” Reheis-Boyd said. “That is as big of a health issue as everything else.”

NOx emissions lead to the formation of ozone and small particulate matter (PM2.5), each of which contributes to significant health impacts, including asthma and heart disease.

The South Coast Air Basin is currently far from meeting mandated air quality requirements for both ozone and PM2.5. Staff for the AQMD has identified NOx emission reductions as being the most effective and efficient ways of bringing the region closer to attaining those goals.

Staff said that even if the original recommendations had been taken, more than 100 additional tons per day would need to be shaved to reach overall 2023 targets.

Nitric oxide emissions come from a variety of sources, both mobile and stationary. Mobile sources, such as cars and trucks, contribute the majority of NOx emissions in the region.

The board's decision impacts 56 stationary sources, which includes mainly refineries and power plants, that are already part of a program to reduce emissions. The Regional Clean Air Incentives Market (RECLAIM) program was adopted in 1993. It established annual allocation caps of NOx emissions for facilities.

The RECLAIM program also instituted a market-based system that allowed facilities to buy credits to offset emissions they produced beyond their allowances.

The narrowly passed vote that weakened reduction requirements also eliminated an amendment that would have retired offset credits owned by facilities that shut down. Staff proposed the amendment, saying it would have reduced both the supply and demand for such credits. They said the wiggle room provided by the credits has largely kept actual pollution-reducing equipment from being installed. 

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