When Good Government Goes Bad

With the adoption of proposed Rule 1315 on Friday, The South Coast Air Quality Management District will manage to hit the sweet-spot of bad government:  writing a rule that strips valuable assets from the people who earned them to keep them for itself.   And all the while, making the air more deadly.

Strong words?  Yes.  Completely true?  Absolutely.

Let me explain.

As I’ve written (quite some time ago, now) in this blog before, there is a long and continuing battle between us and them (“us” is a coalition of environmental justice, public health, and environmental organizations and “them” is the SCAQMD.  Sadly, the U.S. EPA has joined in on the “them” side, but that’s a topic for a future blog).  At the very foundation of the battle is:  clean air matters.   You can read about some of that stuff here, and here, and here.

So here’s where we are now:  On Friday, the SCAQMD staff will ask the Governing Board to adopt—for the third time—Rule 1315.  The Rule has several features, but the central feature is to establish a system in which the SCAQMD takes from businesses the value of the air pollution reductions that they create and gives that value to the SCAQMD to spend as it sees fit.

Here’s how it works:   since we have the dirtiest air in the country, the federal Clean Air Act requires new sources of air pollution to “offset” their emissions by reducing emissions someplace else.  That is how the Act stops things from getting worse while other pollution reduction measures are put into place to reduce air pollution (you know, like how the SCAQMD has banned wood-burning fireplaces in new construction).  To make it easier for this to happen, the Act allows for a pollution reduction market.  In this market, a facility can reduce its air pollution emissions and then convert those reductions into “credits” that can be retained for future use or sold to other facilities.

Under the rules, when a business reduces its emissions and applies to the SCAQMD to get a “credit” for those reductions (an application that the SCAQMD charges a fee to make), the SCAQMD does a calculation that often results in none of the reductions being available to create a “credit.”  BUT—the SCAQMD is writing this Rule so that it can take those reductions, NOT do the calculations and then turn those reductions into “credits” for its own accounts.

Some of those “credits” are given to various businesses around the basin.  And–now this is where things get really, really sweet for the SCAQMD–the SCAQMD sells some of those “credits” to businesses that need “credits” to comply with the federal air quality law.  (So, for example, the SCAQMD used this type of scheme to create and sell “credits” to a power plant that was approved last month–selling them for around $33 million.)

So, how does this make air quality worse?  Well in the new scheme, the Rule that SCAQMD has written will allow them take “credit” for emissions reductions that occurred as long ago as 1990!  What does that mean?  Think about it like this:  let’s say a business called “ABC Products” makes machine parts and air pollution.  After 20 years of business in 1992, ABC Products decides to call it quits–retiring from the business and removing 5 tons per year of air pollution.  Now,  the air is 5 tons per year cleaner.  Nice!  Before this Rule, that reduction would accrue to the benefit of the air quality–basically an easy way to get the air a little cleaner without imposing more regulations on existing facilities.  After Friday’s Rule adoption, the SCAQMD will take those 5 tons that have been out of the air for 19 years and put them into their air account to be re-emitted into the air (and have to develop more regulations to compensate for it).  In fact,  take a look at these charts showing the health impacts of the Rule.  (really, look at the charts.)

The SCAQMD admits in its environmental review document (the environmental review document we sued to make them produce after they insisted that this rule would have no impacts at all) that they anticipate that using these re-emitted emissions will cause 299 deaths from the particulate and ozone impacts and 86 cases of cancer, in addition to a bunch of other health impacts over the life of the project.  That’s more than one person dead each month.   Anyone you know?  (And this number has been greatly underestimated because of how the SCAQMD decided to describe the project and the impacts numbers.)

Not being able to show you the names and faces of those who will die does not make their deaths any less real and important.  Not knowing which kid’s asthma attack was caused by these credits doesn’t make it any less real.  Not being sure your cancer was one of the 86 caused by this project doesn’t make it any less painful.

These are real issues and clean air matters.

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