LOIS HENRY: One small step for common sense on air rules

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District is learning the hard truth behind Kermit the Frog’s lament “It’s Not Easy Being Green.”

In the midst of writing its plan for how the valley can achieve the most recent clean air standard handed down by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on PM2.5 (tiny particles of dust and soot), the district realized its plan would likely kibosh $1.5 billion in upcoming transportation projects throughout the valley.

About $640 million of that is set to be spent in Kern County. It includes the Rosedale Highway widening project as well as the Centennial Corridor linking the Westside Parkway to Highway 58, along with 10 other projects.

The problem became apparent as the air district compiled its emissions inventories to write the plan for this new standard.

That inventory includes emissions forecasted to increase during construction and greater use of new roadways. The district has to show it can still reach smog standards even with those new emissions.

But it couldn’t.

“We were going to have to lower (the road projects’) emissions budget,” explained Air District Chief Seyed Sadredin. “It would kill those projects and be a huge economic loss to the valley.”

This is a 35-year emissions forecast. Once in place, everyone, including local governments, will have to live with it for a generation.

The air board was set to approve the plan next month.

Instead, the board opted to delay the hearing and sent staffers back to the drawing board to recrunch the numbers.

Sadredin expects the rework will cause the district to miss the EPA’s December deadline for the plan.

Local governments “are very nervous but what we told them is we will not propose a plan that will cause such tremendous economic hardship on the valley by stopping these needed projects.”

I think they did the right thing, but the action is sure to invite a lawsuit.

Sadredin hopes to resolve the numbers. That’s a tall order when you consider the EPA wants the amount of dust and soot in the air cut nearly in half and we weren’t meeting the old standard as it was.

Oh, and the ink will barely be dry on this new PM2.5 plan when the district will have to start on a new one due in 2016 as the EPA is expected to reduce the annual standard even further.

Those ever changing standards are part of what Sadredin calls “the big picture.” Which looks to me like a bureacratic juggernaut that has less to do with actually cleaning the air than it does with justifying its own existence.

Along with those three PM2.5 plans I mentioned earlier, the valley district is operating under two different ozone reduction plans and anticipates having a new standard sent down from EPA after the election this year, which will mean another new ozone attainment plan will have to be drawn up by the district by 2015.

“It’s chaos,” Sadredin said.

Background: the Clean Air Act tasked the EPA with reviewing air quality standards every five years based on new science to see if new standards were needed. That, of course, has come to be viewed as a mandate for tougher standards every five years.

Meanwhile, the act was silent on whether the EPA should take into consideration whether new standards are economically or even technologically feasible. The act also doesn’t explicitly state new standards will replace old standards.

Clean air activist groups have sued and won all those issues.

That’s why the valley was dinged on an old standard that no longer applies. And it’s why the EPA and CARB are allowing the valley air district to work with the South Coast Air Quality Management District to fund technology projects in hopes of finding new ways to reduce emissions.

The agencies even have a term for these fairy tale emission reductions calling them “black box” reductions. That’s because neither current nor imminent technology exists to achieve them.

Still, EPA and CARB insist, those impossible standards must be met!

“A lot of people don’t understand that policy is now being set by judges and bureacrats,” Sadredin said. “Congress, 20 years ago, wasn’t thinking how five sets of new standards could create these problems.”

Sadredin was invited to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on the Clean Air Act this week, but those hearings have been postponed. Since the airline ticket was paid for, though, he plans to head out to D.C. anyway and meet with lawmakers individually.

He’s not advocating tossing out the Clean Air Act.

“They should expect us to employ all strategies that we have available to reduce emissions and that should be the standard until technology catches up and we can do more.”

I’m not sure there’s any room for such common sense in today’s air quality world, much less Congress. But I wish him luck.

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