One day after being applauded at a climate change summit in posh Beverly Hills, California officials faced a different kind of reception during a Sacramento public hearing on the state’s monumental greenhouse gas reduction plan. A standing room only crowd of Latino farm workers, inner city residents, dozens of cities and air district officials, small businesses and major manufacturers gave the air resources board an earful about the plan.
By far the loudest complaints at the marathon Sacramento hearing were about the use of cap-and-trade to reduce some emissions, rather than tough, mandatory regulations applied to refineries, power plants and others. Under such trading programs, polluters’ greenhouse gas emissions are capped at a certain amount, but the companies are allowed to pay for reductions elsewhere, possibly in other states and countries, and continue to spew out high levels of both greenhouse gases and traditional air pollution locally.
California’s proposal would allow such market-based reductions by refineries and power plants. Residents of poor, highly polluted communities say that will leave them eating dust once again.
“No to cap and trade! There is a better way,” said Ray Leone, who said he was raised in a migrant worker community in the state’s smoggy Central Valley, and now heads a Fresno-based environmental policy institute. He said a similar pollution credit program had already allowed a sooty power plant to be shut down in wealthy Kern County, while allowing large new plant to built in a dirt-poor Fresno area.
“This is a terrible foreshadow of what will come with cap-and-trade,” testified Leone. “It’s really a terrible step.”
The vocal opposition to California’s plan suggests that a nearly identical proposal by President-elect Barack Obama will face big political hurdles when it comes up for debate. In a videotaped message to the Beverly Hills climate confab on Tuesday, Obama vowed to “set us on a course to reduce emissions to their 1990 levels by 2020.” Obama also said, “That will start with a federal cap-and-trade system.”
At Thursday’s hearing, representatives of municipal utilities, nurses and other public health professionals, public policy researchers and the board’s own environmental justice committee all joined the chorus in speaking out against market based mechanisms, charging they would harm the state’s poorest communities. Several said those communities already have higher asthma rates among children, increased respiratory problems and other illness linked to air pollution. Some noted that large utilities had reaped windfall billions in profits under a similar cap-and-trade program in Europe.
Representatives of private power companies, and some academics and environmentalists, said the use of strictly controlled trading was a must, however. Among other arguments, they said excessive regulatory costs could drive electric bills sky high, further harming consumers and struggling businesses.
The California air board, chaired by Mary Nichols, is scheduled to vote next month on how to roll back annual greenhouse gas emission levels to 1990 levels by 2020 (Nichols is seen as a possible pick by Obama for a top environmental post).
Like the translators on hand earlier in the week for the Beverly Hills event, who conveyed praise for California’s far reaching plan from Mexican, Brazilian and Chinese officials, translators were at the microphone at Thursday’s marathon air board meeting, deciphering at times tearful pleas from crop pickers in particular. The Central Valley, along with Los Angeles, still has the worst smog in the country despite decades of control efforts.
“We just want you to see us, and realize that we are the living example of the impacts that all these not-so-good laws have,” said Inez Rojas, from Fresno. “We’re suffering from different respiratory diseases and asthma … without access to health care, this community is going to suffer more from the global warming. So please don’t forget us, and please recognize us in the changes with the contamination and the pollution.”
The omission of California’s powerful agricultural industry from any required greenhouse reductions was also harshly criticized. State officials said they were testing dairy methane digesters and other technologies, and might impose requirements down the road.
Maria Ibarra, from the small farming community of Limon, said that was not enough.
“I can tell you that Limon is completely and really contaminated, because my husband got the diagnosis, only five years on his life left. He used to work in the fields, and his lungs are so little now, and they’re supposed to be big. So we are the ones that suffer. He got only five years left, so I beg you to pay attention to us,” she said.
After waiting unsuccessfully for hours to testify, about 50 farm workers wearing green t-shirts stood and raised their hands when asked who was against cap and trade. As they filed out, they shouted, “No Justice, No Peace,” and loudly chanted. “Si Se Puede, Si Se Puede” — a pointed translation of Obama’s campaign slogan, “Yes We Can, Yes We Can.”
But despite the turned up volume, their complaints may fall on deaf ears at both the state and federal level. Obama made clear in his taped message that cap and trade would be part of his plan.
In Sacramento, as the hearing stretched into its eleventh hour on Thursday, the board members indicated they might consider some amendments before they vote on Dec. 11. Nichols said the omission of the agriculture industry from any regulation “kind of sticks out like a sore thumb.”
But she continued to talk about offsets as an important tool, and expressed frustration and disappointment that members of the public didn’t understand that as long-time air regulators, they never would cause additional harm. After the hearing concluded Friday, board climate change spokesman Stanley Young said that under the California emissions law (AB 32), overall levels of ozone smog and soot pollutants are not allowed to rise as greenhouse gas levels fall. In heavily polluted areas, he said separate proposed regulations of diesel truck exhaust and other sources would mean cleaner air. As for greenhouse gases, though, refineries, power plants and other large facilities probably will be allowed to buy credits.
Young said, “The proposed scoping plan is abundantly clear … cap and trade is one of the mechanisms which will be used to achieve the state’s required reductions.”
Janet Wilson is a veteran environmental journalist based in southern California. She can be reached at janetwilson66 AT gmail DOT com.