AQMD postpones vote on how to cut smog by nearly 50 percent in 7 years

Birds fly across the sky at daybreak over the downtown Los Angeles skyline on December 14, 2011. According to the state's Air Resources Board earlier this month, California has the worst air quality in the country, with 40 percent of pollution contributed by passenger cars and light-duty trucks.
Birds fly across the sky at daybreak over the downtown Los Angeles skyline on December 14, 2011. According to the state's Air Resources Board earlier this month, California has the worst air quality in the country, with 40 percent of pollution contributed by passenger cars and light-duty trucks.
File photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

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A vote on a controversial plan intended to cut smog-forming emissions in Southern California nearly in half by 2023 was postponed Friday by the governing board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

The board voted 9-3 to delay acting on the plan until its March 3 meeting after board members proposed significant changes at the last minute.

Another reason cited for the postponement was the absence of board member Clark E. Parker Sr., who had worked on the plan for four years but was absent due to a family funeral.

The plan is required for areas with pollution levels that exceed federal standards, which Greater Los Angeles does for both ozone, also known as smog, and particulate matter. It has drawn opposition from both environmentalists and business groups.

Environmentalists, who staged a protest outside the agency’s headquarters in Diamond Bar on Friday, say the plan doesn’t ask enough of industry. Previously, industry groups had complained it underestimated the costs of cutting pollution and would damage the economy.

However, they changed course on Friday and unanimously asked AQMD to pass the plan as written and not make any last-minute changes. Board members Sheila Kuehl and Judy Mitchell proceeded to make last-minute changes.

Mitchell, a Rolling Hills Estates city councilwoman who represents western L.A. County, said she wanted polluters like refineries and power plants to cut their smog-forming emissions faster. The current proposal is to ask for an additional five tons a day of emissions reductions by 2031, which Mitchell found unacceptably slow.

She also asked AQMD staff to definitively abandon the market-based pollution trading program that refineries and power plants participate in, known as RECLAIM (Regional Clean Air Incentives Market), in place of traditional top-down regulations. The program allows polluters to choose the cheapest way to comply with a cap on emissions, through buying and selling pollution credits or cutting emissions directly. However, an excess of credits over the 20-plus-year life of the program has led to far fewer emissions reductions than AQMD would like, and few refineries have installed pollution-control technology that is common elsewhere.

Kuehl, who just joined the AQMD board in January, is an L.A. County supervisor who many environmentalists hope will be tough on polluters. Indeed, one speaker Friday addressed her as his “Joan of Arc.”

The amendments she introduced didn't let them down — Kuehl proposed regulating ports and warehouses if they don't do enough to cut emissions on their own. These facilities are two of the largest sources of smog-forming emissions in the L.A. Basin due to the massive number of trucks, ships and trains that do business there.

The current draft air plan calls for a year of discussion about voluntary emissions cuts with the ports and warehouses, and if at that point no agreement has been reached, allowing the AQMD board to decide whether to start the regulatory process then.

While the difference may sound like one of semantics, for Kuehl it was a question of making sure there were consequences for the ports and warehouses if they don't do what they say.

“I like voluntary plans, but what I like most is the 'or else' part at the end,” Kuehl said.

Kuehl’s amendment frustrated business leaders like Tracy Hernandez, the head of the L.A. County Business Federation.

“At this very super late stage, when the plan should’ve been adopted, to bring in that substantive of an amendment is a disappointment,” she said — especially given that Kuehl is so new to the board and wasn't there for most of the four-year planning process.

Hernandez said she doesn’t think AQMD has the authority to regulate ports and warehouses — a theme echoed by many of the industry speakers today — and that any regulatory effort was “bad public policy” and would result in a lawsuit.

Meanwhile, environmentalists maintained that AQMD did have the authority and urged them to use it. They argued the plan would be rejected by the Environmental Protection Agency as too weak on polluters unless it included tougher regulations on ports and warehouses.

Angela Johnson Mezaros of Earthjustice, who felt the plan was weak coming into the meeting, said she was encouraged by the amendments introduced today.

“All of these sources have the ability to implement cost-effective, reasonable life-saving changes that should happen now. Not in 2031, but now," she said.

Over 500 people packed the AQMD's headquarters in Diamond Bar for the meeting. Public comment lasted over three hours, even though speakers were limited to just a minute.

Representatives of the ports, oil and gas, trucking and business were largely united in urging the board to pass the plan as is, with no further regulations. Meanwhile environmentalists and community activists, who showed pictures of their asthmatic children, urged the board to go further and press for deeper, mandatory reductions.

Why is our air so bad?

Greater L.A. has long had the worst smog, technically known as ozone, in the United States.

Longtime residents probably remember the days when the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains were constantly hazy and it hurt to breathe. Since then, ozone levels have dropped by over 40 percent.

But they’re still bad: a third of the time, there is at least one air quality monitoring station in the basin that has unhealthy levels of ozone.

Ozone forms when sunlight bakes emissions from cars, heavy-duty trucks, refineries, construction equipment, the ports and some natural sources, like trees.

The L.A. Basin, with over 18 million people and the busiest ports in the country, has no shortage of emission sources. It also receives nearly 300 days a year of sunshine. The air here is also unusually stagnant thanks to the mountains, which can trap the air and create temperature inversions.

What are regulators doing about it?

Working with the state and the federal government, the AQMD has done a lot of things over the years, including requiring catalytic converters on cars and power plants, vapor recovery systems on nozzles at gas stations, dust control at factories and even a different blend of gasoline.

But now, AQMD says it has gone almost as far as it can with emissions cuts from “stationary sources” in the region, like refineries, power plants, etc. 

What remains are emissions from mobile sources like cars, trucks, trains and ships. These contribute 88 percent of the smog-forming emissions in Greater L.A.

In its plan, AQMD is proposing a suite of incentives to speed the transition to clean transportation — ones that will cost approximately a billion dollars a year. The idea is that through these incentives, people can be persuaded to abandon older, polluting vehicles faster than through regulations alone (and they won’t get tied up in court).

In addition, the agency is planning on asking the California Air Resources Board and the federal EPA for a new ultra-low emission standard for heavy-duty trucks. Without it, AQMD says it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to meet federal ozone standards. The Obama EPA agreed to begin the rulemaking process in December, and a spokesman for the Trump EPA says that so far, there hasn't been a change to that plan.

AQMD is also hoping that through voluntary conversations with some of the largest emitters of smog-forming pollutants — the ports and warehousing industries — they can agree on emissions reductions. 

Phil Fine, AQMD's deputy executive director, stressed that by working with polluters, they can cut emissions faster than by regulating them.

“But if the collaborative relationship is not working, we still need the emission reductions, [so] we’ll immediately pivot and recommend to our board some [regulations],” he said. 

What do environmentalists say about the plan?

Environmental groups like the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Earthjustice say the agency has not done everything it can to clean up the air. They don’t think AQMD has gone as far as it can with stationary sources, and point out that refineries in the South Coast by and large have not installed the latest pollution controls, something they blame on being a part of the RECLAIM emissions trading program and not subject to top-down regulations.

In addition, they argue the AQMD does have the legal authority to regulate emissions from ports and warehouses — and should use it. They don’t like the agency’s proposal to begin discussions about how to cut emissions from these sources; rather, they want the agency to require them to make deep cuts.

Finally, they worry about where all that incentive money will come from, and what the agency will do if they don’t get the money.

“We have absolutely no idea if any of those measures will come in or not,” David Pettit, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, told the AQMD board in January. “You can’t calculate the odds.”

What do industry and business say about the plan?

Industry groups also worry about where the incentive money will come from.

Some of the possible sources are new property or sales taxes, along with vehicle registration and cargo container fees, all of which they say would damage the region’s economy, according to a comment letter sent to AQMD by the L.A. County Business Federation.

The logistics industry in particular is nervous that AQMD’s proposal to begin talks with the ports and warehouses will result in an emissions cap — something environmentalists want, but something those businesses have long resisted. The ports point to their own successes reducing pollution through initiatives like the Clean Truck Program, which turned over the entire truck fleet at the ports of Long Beach and L.A. and cut diesel particulate matter emissions by 85 percent between 2005 and 2015. 

The Western States Petroleum Association also objects to a proposal to scrap RECLAIM, the market-based emissions trading program they participate in, in favor of traditional top-down regulation.

The Southern California Leadership Council asked AQMD to push back against "unrealistic state and federal mandates" that require AQMD to ask for such strict emissions reductions.

What does AQMD say about the plan?

AQMD staff say they are hopeful that this plan will actually help them meet federal air quality standards.

“If we can raise this funding, it’s not only possible, it will happen,” AQMD's Fine told KPCC in November. 

They say technology has advanced to the point where there are clean, low-emission vehicles on the market today that will allow for huge reductions in emissions that weren’t possible in the past — if they can incentivize people to switch over to them.

They say if they don’t get the money, they can do what they’ve done in the past: rely on a provision of the Clean Air Act called the “black box” that allows them to be vague about how they will cut emissions, rather than itemizing where the cuts will come from and how much they will cost. But that’s something they’d like to avoid.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the rate that the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach reduced their emissions between 2005 and 2015. An earlier version of this story also misidentified the AQMD. KPCC regrets the error.

This story has been updated.