Environment & Science

AQMD proposes new business-friendly air quality plan

The downtown skyline is enveloped in smog shortly before sunset in Los Angeles, California.
The downtown skyline is enveloped in smog shortly before sunset in Los Angeles, California.
David McNew/Getty Images

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Ever since Republicans took control of the South Coast Air Quality Management District in February, they have been promising to make the agency more business-friendly.

A proposal for a new pollution management plan released Thursday is the first sign that AQMD is trying to make good on that promise.

The proposal relies heavily on financial incentives and voluntary action, not new regulations, to combat the air pollution that plagues 17 million residents of Southern California. The region has the worst air quality in the country and does not meet federal standards for particulate pollution and ozone. Those pollutants are the main ingredients of smog and cause asthma, lung disease and heart problems.  The draft plan is the AQMD’s road map, produced every three to four years, for how to reduce those emissions.  

“This [plan] really represents a new approach,” AQMD’s Acting Executive Officer Wayne Nastri said at a press conference Thursday. “It focuses on available, proven and existing technology. And really, it provides cost-effective alternatives to traditional strategies.”

Indeed, words like “innovative,” “win-win,” “non-regulatory” and “cost-effective” pepper the 2016 draft Air Quality Management Plan. “Cost-effective” appears 75 times, compared to only 33 times in the 2012 plan.

The draft plan focuses on using incentives to reduce emissions from heavy trucks, off-road industrial vehicles, ships, trains, aircraft and cars. Those are the largest sources of air pollution in the region, contributing nearly 90 percent of total nitrogen oxide emissions. Nitrogen oxide is a key building block of ozone.

AQMD is also proposing a new, voluntary program to quantify and reduce emissions at ports, distribution warehouses, rail yards, airports and new development projects.

Currently, the agency offers $50 million to $100 million per year in incentives to reduce emissions. Over the next 15 years, AQMD is looking to increase that to $1 billion a year – a more than ten-fold increase.

The agency is hoping to get roughly half that money from Congress under a new "Clean Air Investment Fund" that AQMD is proposing. The program would provide clean-up funds for regions with chronically polluted air. Additional funding is expected to come from state climate change mitigation funds, said deputy executive officer Philip Fine.

Fine acknowledged the funding sources for the new plan were uncertain. 

“It’s premature to know exactly how that funding is going to be secured,” he said.

Critics says that uncertainty is unacceptable in a plan whose purpose is to lay out how the agency will achieve several Clean Air Act requirements that  it does not currently meet.

“So if there’s no funding, there’s no plan,” said Evan Gillespie, who works for the Sierra Club and was involved with the AQMD stakeholder process while the agency was developing the plan. “If we’re relying on a high functioning Congress to deliver the funding mechanism, it’s not a real plan.”

For Adrian Martinez of Earthjustice, the focus on government-funded incentives is troubling for how it shifts the burden of paying to clean up pollution from private industry to the public, or as he puts it, to “breathers.”

“The plan is dripping with politics,” Martinez said. “There’s a lot of technologies out there to clean up this pollution. Those should be required.”

The agency insists it’s not going light on polluters. AQMD’s Fine pointed to a new, stricter nitrogen oxide emissions cap that polluters must now meet under the agency’s  NOx cap and trade program, called RECLAIM.

The new cap, which reduces NOx emissions from a single source by five additional tons per day by 2031, is a departure from a decision the agency made in December. Then, the previous board voted to adopt a looser emissions cap than environmentalists and federal regulators had wanted. Instead, it chose a proposal backed by the oil and gas industry that was less restrictive than what AQMD staff had recommended. A group of environmental organizations are suing AQMD over that decision.

Fine said in writing the 2016 plan, the agency came up with a long list of proposed emissions regulations for so-called “stationary sources,” things like power plants, refineries and other immobile emitters. But, he said, once they ran the list through a cost-benefit analysis, few "cost effective" options remained, which is why AQMD chose to focus so heavily on financial incentives and voluntary actions.

“We think we have left no stone unturned on the regulatory side and the traditional approach. If people disagree with that, we are open to suggestions,” Fine said. “But we think we have gone as far as we can and what’s left is going to be these innovative approaches.”

Other environmentalists criticized the agency for the way it unveiled the plan. The document was not made available until a press conference Thursday morning that was only open to reporters. Other members of the public were not able to view the draft plan until Thursday evening at 5:30.

Calling the release “bizarre,” the Center for Biological Diversity said in a press release that “instead of working so hard to hide this proposal, officials should focus on complying with the law and cleaning up the refineries, power plants, and other major industrial polluters contaminating the air we breathe.”