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Wednesday, July 17, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Greens Say SoCal Air Board Caved to Big Oil

LOS ANGELES (CN) - Truckling to pressure from the oil industry, Southern California's air quality regulator weakened cap and trade rules for pollutants in the L.A. Basin, which has the most-polluted air in the nation, major environmental groups said in a lawsuit Wednesday.

Over the objections of its own staff, the South Coast Air Quality Management District adopted an oil industry-backed smog plan at its Dec. 4, 2015 meeting, the environmental groups say in superior court.

"The industry alternative ensured that it would remain cheaper for certain large companies to buy pollution credits rather than install life-saving pollution controls over the next seven years," the complaint states.

Despite three years of staff work, supported by more than 2,000 pages of documentation, "the Governing Board that morning introduced a new alternative developed by industry interests. The evidence presented to the Governing Board failed to support the industry proposal," according to the complaint.

"Over the objections of its own staff, the Governing Board approved this industry-proposed plan. In doing so, the Board left in place a NOx RECLAIM program that is indefensible under state law."

NOx, nitrogen oxide, is a key component of smog. NOx RECLAIM stands for the NOx Regional Clean Air Incentives Market, a regional, market-based, emissions credit trading program.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District is a state agency that enforces federal and state clean air laws for the 17 million residents of the South Coast Air Basin, which includes all of Orange County and urban portions of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Suing the SCAQMD on Wednesday were Communities for a Better Environment, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

They seek writ of mandate that the SCAQMD violated the state Health and Safety Code in its arbitrary and capricious approval of the oil industry measure.

California law requires polluters to participate in NOx RECLAIM. It was created to reduce ozone pollution and meet federal clean air health standards by 2010. Ozone is a key component of smog.

Calling the program "admittedly inadequate," the groups say that the South Coast Air Basin still has the worst air pollution in the nation and fails to meet either federal or California standards for ozone pollution.

Before the Dec. 4 meeting, the SCAQMD showed a promotional video that stated: "Every year more people will die in Southern California from air pollution-related diseases than from all traffic accidents and crime-related deaths combined," according to the complaint.

"Air pollution kills, and the air board violated California law by bowing to the oil industry and failing to protect us from smog," Center for Biological Diversity attorney Maya Golden-Krasner said in a statement. "The air district's own experts opposed this weak measure for good reason. This smog rule is scientifically unsound, legally indefensible and dangerous to the well-being of every person who breathes."

Last week the board ousted air district executive officer Barry Wallerstein, who opposed the change. A Republican majority sits on the 13-member board, whose firing of Wallenstein, and whose "support for a plan to let oil refiners, power plants and other major polluters keep spewing emissions" was blasted this week in a Los Angeles Times editorial.

Sierra Club executive Evan Gillespie said that Wallerstein's ouster showed that the board is backing away from its commitment to improving air quality and is "more concerned about the shareholders of fossil fuel companies."

"The out-of-control air board seems bent on returning Southern California to a time when pollution made it hard to breathe, and when profits trumped people," Gillespie said.

The lawsuit claims that the cap and trade program "does not live up to" Health and Safety Code standards for market-based pollution control measures.

The program "instead perpetuates a program where some of the largest polluting sources like re?neries simply pay to pollute, instead of installing life-saving pollution controls," the complaint states.

The environmental groups ask the court to set aside the approval and order the SCAQMD to implement pollution controls with the best available retrofit control technology, as required by state law, and that, among other things, do not "artificially inflate" Reclaim Trading Credits by adjusting them for "uncertainties" and for "growth before that growth actually occurs."

Their lead attorney is Adrian Martinez, with Earthjustice.

South Coast Air Quality Management District did not respond to emails sent after business hours Wednesday.

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