Is it time to retire our smog control police, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, for a re-imagined effort at corraling pollution? A Smogtown editorial.Wednesday, March 21st, 2012
As the Los Angeles region’s smog control agency this year begins to update its plan to meet health standards for air pollution in this sprawling metropolis, there’s scant interest from the press or public for that matter.
Lack of interest may well be warranted, even though the remaining health toll of smog—as many as 23,000 deaths per year in California, most of them in the Los Angeles region—point to as much need to meet health standards today as at any time during the region’s historical effort to cleanse its skies. Throw global warming into the mix and cutting emissions from cars, buses, trucks, trains, planes, ships, power plants, and oil refineries is even that much more important.
While the regional smog control agency—known as the South Coast Air Quality Management District—can write plans, it can do little today to enforce them. After almost 70 years of ratcheting down allowable emissions from stationary sources—largely consisting of industries—today more than 70 percent of the remaining pollution comes from cars, trucks, and other mobile sources over which the agency has practically no power. Add shipping, refining, and pumping the petroleum products needed to fuel mobile sources, and you’re close to 75 percent of the pollution. Much of the rest comes from homes and small businesses not really capable of following complicated regulations, but that instead need to use clean paints, cleaning fluids, and other products that meet clean air standards.
At the state level, the California Air Resources Board largely has power over these consumer products and over many mobile sources—particularly cars, trucks, and off-road equipment used in construction and farming. Yet, it finds itself mostly in the same boat as the SCAQMD. It has reduced the amount of allowable pollution from these sources to levels that are unlikely to get much lower, without moving to electric cars, which is the board’s plan.
But here’s the rub. Given the nature of the economy, work, and how Californians live, electric cars are not very practical for many folks. They cost too much and have a limited driving range, generally no more than 100 miles on a charge, and that’s being generous. Most people just can’t afford to have an electric car to commute in and a gasoline-powered model for weekend trips to see Grandma and get the kids to soccer tournaments.
Enter the plug-in hybrid vehicle, which combines the two technologies under one hood, with batteries and an electric motor for short-range driving and a gasoline engine for longer trips. That gives hope, but yikes it sure is expensive. The Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid is priced at more than $40,000. No wonder sales have been disappointing. I don’t know about you, but with kids to educate and a mortgage to make I’ll cut my emissions by taking public transit or walking before shelling out that kind of money. Evidently, I’m not alone.
And that’s reality, which points to another reality about political organization in Smogtown.
SCAQMD and CARB can talk and throw money at clean-fueled and electric vehicles, but that alone will never meet air quality standards or achieve the 85 percent reduction in greenhouse gases needed to stabilize the world’s climate. Instead, the major drivers of these emissions are land-use patterns, transportation, and the way the economy is organized. Components made hither and yon are shipped around the world for assembly on the global production line and then shipped to market by a network of ships, trains, planes, and trucks, emitting air pollutants and greenhouse gases all the way. Same goes for food. Most of us still have to commute to offices or travel to meetings, despite the miracle of modern telecommunications and information technology.
So the question is not what the agencies should put in their clean air plans, but instead whether they are the ones that should be writing the plans to begin with? Circumstances have changed and that requires rethinking how government is organized.
Indeed, the history of Smogtown shows that at various points achieving future progress on air pollution necessitated reorganizing government agencies. First, county air pollution agencies were formed. Then lawmakers created the statewide Air Resources Board to tackle Detroit automakers who for almost two decades eluded local cleanup efforts. Then regional air pollution control agencies—like the SCAQMD were formed—to broaden power over air pollution sources. Each of these reinventions of government brought some progress.
Here in Smogtown we posit it’s time for more reinvention. Here’s the plan.
First, move control of air pollution from stationary sources to newly formed county air pollution control offices, which would be closer to the people and guided by elected rather than appointed and unaccountable officials. Counties could run air pollution control monitoring networks as well. Samples of air needed to monitor compliance with health standards and to enforce rules for factories and other businesses could be analyzed by one of the four counties in SCAQMD’s jurisdiction on a contract basis after that county assumes control of the SCAQMD’s lab under this reorganization plan.
Second, shift the rulemaking function for stationary sources to the California Air Resources Board. There are not many more rules left anyway, and the state Air Board already is developing rules for greenhouse gas emissions that can and should go hand-and-hand with any additional air pollution control rules that are possible.
Third, transfer clean-fuel vehicle monies administered by the SCAQMD to the transportation authorities in each county, as well as other funds doled out for so-called mobile source projects. These agencies are closer to the people than the unelected officials at SCAQMD in Diamond Bar and are in a better position to integrate clean-fueled vehicles and related fueling facilities into the transportation infrastructure.
Finally, hand over to the Southern California Association of Governments the job of developing future air pollution cleanup plans. It has broader participation from local governments and more expertise when it comes to land-use, transportation, and economics—the major remaining drivers of air pollution and key factors influencing greenhouse gases.
In reorganizing air pollution control in Smogtown, Sacramento lawmakers should reiterate that SCAG needs to develop plans that will cut greenhouse gases, as well as air pollution. They also should give the state Air Resources Board clear oversight authority over SCAG and the power to cut off state money to cities that do not follow the regional planning organization’s blueprints.
This will get attention from city halls, the media, and residents when it comes to land-use and transportation in a way that today’s SCAQMD doesn’t. In fact, I bet most people in city halls across SCAQMD’s area—as is the case with most residents and news reporters—barely know the agency’s name, much less what it does.
Time to get busy! Let’s get organized for the new realities of air pollution and global warming to improve life in Smogtown!