A Critical Vote on Southern California Air Quality

At issue, investing in long range fossil fuel infrastructure.

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Today, the South Coast Air Quality Management District is having an important discussion about energy in the Los Angeles region at its Governing Board meeting. The vote centers around whether to initiate a process to expedite natural gas power infrastructure in one of the most polluted air basins in the nation.

This decision is exceptionally important because it will serve as a litmus test for whether this agency responsible for clean air is invested in advancing a clean power generation in the South Coast Air Basin.

The Air basin includes all of Orange County and the urban portions of Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and Riverside counties. Home to more than 16 million residents, the region consistently has the filthiest air in the nation. Also, there has been a growing realization that in order to meet clean air standards, the region needs to transform how it powers the region. This means moving away from fossil fuels towards more sustainable energy.

Community and environmental advocates believe the district should not develop natural gas infrastructure, which will be around for decades. Instead, the district should focus on energy efficiency, solar, wind and reducing demand during peak hours. This approach is consistent with the energy policy the South Coast district adopted in September 2011.

Instead of focusing on this better, more sustainable path, the proposal on the table seeks to ease current restrictions on power plant use of Emission Reduction Credits. These credits are designed to ensure that as new pollution sources are added in the region, there have been the same or more reductions in pollution. Some of these credits in the South Coast come from reductions that took place decades ago, which means the clean air gains from a long time ago could be sacrificed with the addition of new natural gas power plants.

Since power plants emit a large quantity of pollution, they need lots of credits. The private market for these credits are very expensive, and energy lobbyists have long sought access to an internal bank of credits operated by the South Coast district. Already under the district’s regulations, the old power plants along the coast are provided credits to upgrade their aging equipment.

The rush to expedite this natural gas infrastructure has not been demonstrated. In fact, evidence suggests that this effort does not need to happen this year, if ever at all. While there are claims that protections can be put in place, this is the wrong discussion. We need to shift from talking about expanding fossil fuel infrastructure.

Overall, the board should not start us along a path of making it easier to build new natural gas infrastructure in the region. The science and analysis do not support this direction. In fact, public policy of promoting clean energy solutions strongly pushes against this direction. Sierra Club and Communities for a Better Environment will be out in force at the hearing to advocate for clean air and a clean energy future.

Based in Los Angeles, Adrian works on clean air, clean energy, and healthy communities issues as a deputy managing attorney for Earthjustice's Right to Zero campaign. Follow him on Twitter @LASmogGuy.

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