Worried that their constituents will soon pay more dearly for their air pollution, four California Republicans have introduced legislation to temporarily exempt the San Joaquin Valley from stricter smog limits and a $29 million fine from U.S. EPA that grows larger by the year.
Many smog-choked areas of California have failed to meet the standards despite having some of the nation's strictest restrictions on industrial pollution and emissions from cars and trucks. Last year, air quality regulators in the San Joaquin Valley took the unconventional step of creating a new $12 annual fee for car owners, planning to use that money to pay the federal fine.
A new bill (H.R. 1582) from House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) would give the valley and the Los Angeles area a five-year pass from stricter limits on ground-level ozone -- the main ingredient in smog -- that are expected to be finalized by EPA this summer.
McCarthy's home town of Bakersfield, Calif., has the nation's worst ozone problem, according to rankings released last week by the American Lung Association. Mainly because of unlucky natural conditions, places like Bakersfield would need to ban the combustion of fossil fuels in order to meet the stricter pollution limits proposed by EPA last year, said Seyed Sadredin, executive director of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.
The new bill could be a hard sell among Democrats, most of whom have supported the stricter air quality standards that have been recommended by EPA's scientific advisers. But McCarthy says it makes no sense to saddle drivers and businesses with unachievable standards and fines from an outdated rule while unemployment in the valley is hovering around 18 percent.
"It does alter the Clean Air Act, slightly," he told the Bakersfield Californian, referring to his new bill. "But we're not trying to exempt any areas or do away with fines or anything like that. We want to work toward cleaner air but do it with some common sense."
The bill would get rid of the San Joaquin Valley's $29 million penalty by scrapping EPA's one-hour ozone standard, which was put in place in 1979 and was vacated when a tougher eight-hour standard was issued under President Clinton.
The George W. Bush administration tried to get rid of the fines, saying they were not needed because the one-hour standard was vacated, but a federal appeals court ruled in 2006 that the Clean Air Act requires parts of the rules to stay in place to prevent "backsliding" on smog.
EPA has now interpreted the ruling to mean that the one-hour ozone standards should still apply, along with any fines, until an area meets the eight-hour standard. The agency proposed a rule to that effect last summer and is slated to follow up with a final decision this year (E&ENews PM, Aug. 23).
Health groups say that the fines and stricter standards are needed to combat pervasive health problems in places like California. Exposure to ozone can irritate the lungs, causing asthma attacks and other breathing problems on hot, sunny days when emissions are heavy.
One analysis found that air pollution in the San Joaquin Valley has an annual price tag of $6 billion -- $1,600 per person -- in health costs and early deaths. In the South Coast Air Management District, which includes Los Angeles and several surrounding counties, the costs are estimated at $22 billion, or $1,250 for every man, woman and child.
McCarthy's bill is also sponsored by House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa, a Republican whose district between Los Angeles and San Diego is also in nonattainment for ozone. His hometown of Vista, Calif., is in the South Coast air district, where officials have also thought about driver fees to pay their penalty for flunking the one-hour ozone standard.
Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, said carving out an exception to the new ozone limits would undermine the goal of the air quality standards, which are supposed to be strong enough to protect public health across the country. It would be a slippery slope, encouraging other areas of the country to seek exemptions of their own, he said.
Loosening the rules would also ease pressure at both the federal and local level to do as much as possible about sources of air pollution that local officials cannot regulate, such as cars, Becker said.
"In order to get water out of a sponge, you have to keep squeezing and squeezing until at some point, the sponge becomes dry," he said. "If this bill went through, and it removed some of the imperative for the federal government to take certain control measures, we'd be losing a grand opportunity."
'Is it achievable?'
In absolute terms, the air in the San Joaquin Valley has gotten much cleaner over the past few decades. The counties overseen by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District had a combined 43 days with unhealthy air last year, down from 261 days a decade earlier, according to a report released last week by the California Air Pollution Control Officers Association (CAPCOA).
Yet the federal standards are only getting more difficult to achieve.
The San Joaquin Valley was one of the nation's fastest-growing areas between 1980 and 2010, seeing its population explode from 2 million to about 4 million today. That led to an increase in car traffic, making it hard to address the largest source of emissions despite the fact that modern cars use less fuel and release less pollution from their tailpipes.
California's Central Valley has particular smog troubles because its hot and sunny weather is perfect for the formation of ozone. Also, the surrounding mountains trap pollution and atmospheric inversions keep it close to the ground, said Sadredin, the head of the San Joaquin Valley's air quality office.
"It's a bowl with a lid on top of it, most of the time," Sadredin said. "A small amount of air pollution does a lot more damage here than it would somewhere else."
Under the McCarthy bill, areas with ozone problems that are classified as "extreme" by EPA would be exempted from new standards until a panel of local government officials and stakeholders decide whether it would be practical to get the air clean enough to comply. The committee would have five years to send a report to Capitol Hill, and Congress would have six months to review it.
Without the bill, the stricter rules would doom the San Joaquin Valley to failure within a year or two, Sadredin said. Areas would not need to achieve the new standard until about 2031, but they would need to reduce ozone levels by 3 percent per year to show continued improvement -- something that would be achievable in most places, but not in the valley, he said.
Having controlled industrial plants as well as possible, the San Joaquin air district has spent about $150 million per year for the past five years on incentives to get cleaner vehicles on the road, Sadredin said. Supported by grants and money from a statewide ballot initiative, the area will pay truck owners $50,000 or $60,000 toward the cost of a newer, cleaner truck if they trade in the old one.
"We have some of the toughest regulations in the nation here," Sadredin said. "If you do all of that and you are still unable to meet the standard, because of meteorology and some of the sources that you cannot control, to me a common-sense approach would not impose a penalty in those areas, as long as you've done the best you can."
The bill seems like a good idea, said Thomas Christofk, the president of CAPCOA and head of the air quality office for Placer County, northeast of Sacramento.
Placer County would not get any special treatment under McCarthy's bill, because EPA has classified it as a severe rather than extreme violator for ozone. But there, too, it is getting more difficult to find emissions reductions to meet the previous standards.
The county is on track to comply with the Clinton-era ozone rules by 2017, but it probably cannot achieve the 2008 standard on that timeframe, Christofk said. Now that the Obama administration is reconsidering the Bush-era rules and preparing to set a standard of between 60 and 70 parts per billion this summer, things are looking bleak for areas that have already cut emissions in the easiest and most cost-effective ways, he said.
Industrial sources are responsible for 10 to 12 percent of the ozone-forming emissions in Placer County, with the rest coming from the transportation sector. Fees and technological upgrades for the transportation fleet will be needed to meet stricter air pollution standards, but counties cannot do it on their own, Christofk said.
"The question for me is, should the major sources of the burden on the airshed, which typically are mobile sources, do their share to fix the commons?" Christofk said. "The answer to that, I think, is 'yes.'"
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Click here to read a summary of the bill's effect on the San Joaquin Valley.
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