By Tom Tanton.

To hear certain politicians, interest groups and newspaper columnists describe it recent decisions by the South Coast Air Quality Management District Board will condemn Southlanders to a return to 1970s levels smog with dire consequences to life and health.  This is highly unlikely for a number of reasons.

Regarding the specific issues: first there’s the recent tightening of the already successful emissions reducing program, RECLAIM, that promises the largest emissions reduction in the history of that program.  By any standard the update advances the task of cleaning the air – and therefore creating a healthier environment – in Southern California.  But because the Board accepted only about 90 percent of its staff’s recommendations, some criticized the amendments as “rolling back” clean air rules.  This – again by any standard – is indisputably false. 

The second issue is the AQMD Board’s decision to terminate the employment of its Executive Officer, who had held his position for about 20 years.  Once again, the same vested interests immediately proclaimed that this would mean the end of clean air in Southern California, and accused the Board of retribution for its staff’s defense of a rule that the Board determined was not, on balance, in the best interest of citizens.  Nowhere in this frenzy did the Board’s critics mention that the Executive Officer himself, in a letter to CARB, affirmed that the recent amendments to the rule in question would “improve air quality, better protect public health, and bring the region closer to attainment.”

Mr. Wallerstein further wrote that: “Our agency is just as acutely aware of the emission reductions needed to achieve clean air in Southern California as anyone and works hard each day to provide cleaner air to breathe. To date, the existing RECLAIM rules have reduced both NOx and SOx emissions by nearly 75% each. The December 4th amendments for NOx will raise that control percentage to about 86% by 2022 for NOx. These reductions are on top of decades of emission reductions prior to RECLAIM’s initial approval.”

Some have claimed that the regulators have been ‘captured’ by the very industry they regulate. This would be laughable except many journalists, columnists and opinion leaders actually believe it. If the industry indeed possessed such control, and exerted it against the benefit of the populace, California would not have the cleanest-burning gasoline on the planet, strictest controls and regulations on oil production and refining of any state, and a commitment at the highest levels of government to simply legislate changes in people’s fuel choice regardless of the costs.

And not all but one of the many oil companies previously headquartered here would have fled the state for friendlier business climes.

The fact is that California needs oil and other manufacturing industries to supply its residents with basic human needs.  These sectors also provide the jobs and revenues that support our state’s economy and its peoples’ standard of living.  The dwindling number of industries willing to remain here is faced with ideologically-based challenges that make it increasingly more difficult.  We should not let the desire for pristine air quality be the enemy of the very good and successful.

So keeping these facts in mind, reasonable observers might wonder what the fuss is all about and why AQMD’s governance is being unreasonably second-guessed.

Some have called for the removal of certain board members with whose votes they disagree.  Their undisguised goal is to guarantee outcomes desired by a certain segment of the community and some political power brokers, but by no means everyone – especially not the more than twenty percent of Southlanders who are unemployed, and for whom ‘environmental justice’ is elusive.

Regional air districts were established to develop local policies, under local control, to meet state and federal air quality goals in ways that consider conditions unique to each area of the state.  The AQMD Board, for example, is comprised of Southern California mayors, county supervisors, business leaders and environmental advocates who are either elected to their office or appointed by elected officials.  These board members represent diverse constituencies, and among them reflect the diverse values of those constituencies. This approach balances interests and protects against political interference and protects against regulatory capture by any single interest.  This is the covenant of District formation.

Reasonable people can disagree about decisions regional boards make, but that’s how objective and informed rule making works. Hopefully cooler heads will prevail and an agency that’s served Southlanders well for decades will be allowed to continue its work free of external manipulation.

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Originally posted at Fox & Hounds Daily.