Air Quality Politics

MDAQMD Urges Governor To Reconsider AB 32

By Eldon Heaston
Executive Director, MDAQMD

The Mojave Desert Air Quality Management District has always strived to lead by example and takes great pride in its role as a leader among local regulatory agencies. In 2003, the MDAQMD was the first public agency in the High Desert to install its own solar electric generating system to meet almost half of the energy needs of its Victorville headquarters. In 2006, the MDAQMD became the first air district in the state to join the Climate Action Reserve and voluntarily certify its own carbon emission reductions. On February 3, 2010, the MDAQMD became the first air district in the state to write a letter to Governor Schwarzenegger and legislators, urging them to reconsider moving forward with regulations under AB32 until a careful review of the implementation impacts on California’s existing regulatory scheme and its struggling economy could be undertaken.

Although our governing board’s position on AB 32 has not exactly made us the darling of the state or other air districts, we have been encouraged by the overwhelming support we have received from local municipalities, businesses, and everyday citizens of the High Desert. These entities understand that the MDAQMD’s position is not based on the science of global warming – it’s based on the High Desert’s economic future and the possibility that our region may not survive the mounting regulatory gridlock which threatens to cripple our struggling economy and hinder our agency’s ability to adequately protect local air quality and the health of our residents.

While the MDAQMD believes the goals of many of the legislative and regulative enactments behind AB32 are laudable and necessary, we are also finding that in an area of unique economic and regulatory challenges – such as the High Desert – there are serious conflicts among existing and potential proposed regulatory programs.

To begin with, there is the unique issue of transported pollution which overwhelmingly impacts air quality readings measured within the MDAQMD’s jurisdiction. CARB studies have demonstrated that were it not for windblown pollution originating outside of the MDAQMD’s boundaries – primarily in the Los Angeles basin – our area would rarely, if ever, exceed state and federal ozone standards. Unfortunately, the Federal Clean Air Act does not consider the source of pollution, just where the exceedances of the standards happen to be measured. As a result, businesses in the MDAQMD are already subject to costly and stringent New Source Review requirements, which require them to obtain non-existent pollution offsets before they are allowed to locate or expand within our jurisdiction. This requirement – which is precipitated by out-of area smog over which the MDAQMD has no control – has historically forced many an industry to look elsewhere to site its business – often out of state – primarily because we have very few existing industries in the High Desert to provide such offsets through emission reductions.

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Having businesses and the jobs circumvent your region is never a good thing, particularly in an area such as the High Desert, where the average unemployment rate currently looms at 16.6%. The MDAQMD believes that any additional mandates which impose even more stringent requirements and higher fees on local industry will put us at a further competitive disadvantage with neighboring states, which are not regulating greenhouse gasses as stringently, if at all. For this reason, we also believe that the state should delay full implementation of AB32 and consider allowing GHG regulation to occur at the federal level, when the time is right, which insures uniformity between states as opposed to economic disparity and unfair competition. Basically, we support waiting until the playing field is leveled so that both the environment and the economy will benefit. In this vein, the MDAQMD also strongly supports NSR reform and a reopening of the Federal Clean Air Act to correct the plethora of existing problems with both permitting and PSD requirements.

The severe jobs/housing imbalance which exists within the MDAQMD represents a major economic and air quality challenge, in that this imbalance – and the inordinate commuter miles it requires – is also the major source of air emissions and GHGs within the MDAQMD. Surveys show that nearly 50% of High Desert residents commute at least 40 miles each way to work, with many more traveling over 100 miles one way daily. It is estimated that over 200,000 cars travel in and out of the MDAQMD’s jurisdiction each and every work day, often in heavy traffic. Thus, the MDAQMD cannot support any law which has the effect of discouraging business from establishing locally, forcing local residents to commute unnecessarily and consequently increasing air emissions in both our district and elsewhere. It is the MDAQMD’s belief that truly “green cities” will not be possible until we can site jobs in those cities.

In our letter to the Governor, the MDAQMD expressed concerns regarding the layers of conflicting land use mandates, CEQA and other regulatory air quality requirements and policy goals which may potentially come into direct conflict with current state laws and regulations, as well as proposed regulatory measures developed to implement AB32. These mandates include a proposed tightening of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Ozone and the USEPA’s recent “Endangerment Finding,” which states that “greenhouse gases threaten the public health and welfare of the American people.” Even closer to home, recent proposals to amend California’s Desert Protection Act pose a threat to the area’s economic and air quality future by severely restricting construction of clean and essential energy generation facilities in the place where they make the most sense: the Mojave Desert, which ranks second only to the Sahara Desert in solar radiation. Clearly, this type of gridlock does not seem to make sense for the environment or the economy.

Over the past 30-plus year, California has made great strides in its efforts to reduce air pollution. Despite the impacts of transported smog, the High Desert’s air quality continues to improve, thanks in large part to emission reduction progress made in the South Coast Air Basin. Even as these improvements continue, conflicting and onerous regulatory requirements threaten to cripple economic growth.

In light of the current economic and regulatory situation, the MDAQMD believes that there will be a time and place for AB32 implementation, but we do not believe that now – during the worst economic climate since the Great Depression – is that time. We are troubled that if we do not proceed with caution at this delicate juncture and fail to clearly set forth our priorities and carefully examine potential conflicts between regulatory programs at both the state and federal Levels, we may make some apparent gains in one area while jeopardizing progress in another. What we are suggesting is not without precedent. The governor’s office and the legislature has waived CEQA and other requirements in order to site football stadiums, finding that there is something very dysfunctional about the California regulatory requirements for projects. We would hope that this region’s air quality and its economy are due the same deference.

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