After an intense campaign by environmentalists, Bay Area regulators recently mapped out aggressive new measures to cut emissions of the heat-trapping gases that cause climate change. The proposed measures followed a two-and-a-half year push by 350 Bay Area and the Sierra Club to get the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to step up its efforts to fight global warming.
During the July 29 meeting of the air district's board of directors, Henry Hilken, the agency's director of planning and climate protection, presented a proposal, which, if adopted, would require regulators for the first time to consider the impact on greenhouse-gas emissions of new projects in the Bay Area. Other proposed regulations include limits on greenhouse gas emissions from refineries, wood burning, diesel generators, and methane leaks. "That would not have happened without our advocacy," said Jed Holtzman, a member of 350 Bay Area.
The proposals are "more aggressive than [those taken by] any other air district in the US," said Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, who represents the western part of the county on the board of supervisors and sits on the air district board of directors. "Making greenhouse gases a part of the permitting process is a big deal."
Holtzman agreed that the plan is "unquestionably progress." But it's been a long time coming. Although the air district adopted its first climate action program in 2005, Holtzman said the board's Climate Protection Committee rarely met. So in early 2013, the environmentalist coalition began a vigorous campaign to "get them to think a different way," Holtzman added. "We went to countless board and committee meetings, gave hundreds of well-informed spoken and written comments, brought constituents to meet with individual board members, held rallies, and circulated online petitions."
At the end of 2013, the board adopted a resolution declaring its intention to develop a plan to match the state's climate goal: by 2050, the Bay Area should be producing only one-fifth of the heat-trapping gases emitted in 1990. But it then took more than a year and a half for air district staffers to prepare the plan presented late last month.
Some activists contend that air district staffers deliberately delay action because they're too cozy with — and fearful of — industrial polluters. "The board allows the staff to procedurally drag out these serious policy issues," said Andres Soto of Communities for a Better Environment.
But Gioia, usually an ally of environmental organizations, disputes this claim. "There's a lot of impatience," he said. "They say we 'need to do more.' And we do! But the fact is we're already doing more than anybody else. The majority of board members want to do something. But it takes some thought to do it a way that results in meaningful progress." He added, however, that "350 Bay Area, the Sierra Club, and other advocates deserve credit for keeping this issue a high priority and pushing the air district to do more."
In presenting the new plan last month, Hilken presented a graph showing that current regulations will not bring the Bay Area anywhere near the district's greenhouse-gas reduction goal. In 2050, the region will still be producing almost as much as it did in 1990 — 85 percent, not the 20 percent the district is hoping for.
Board member Eric Mar called the slide "a wake-up call" that "business as usual isn't going to get us there."
But environmentalists say the new plan, although a step forward, doesn't reflect that urgency. The plan calls for completing some of the new regulations next year, and some at a date to be determined. Air district board member Roger Kim commented: "Too many rules are TBD [to be determined]. It makes me worried, given the crisis before us."
The biggest controversy over the proposed plan concerns strategies for lowering greenhouse gas emissions from the Bay Area's five oil refineries. Activists have been campaigning for years for the air district to cap refinery emissions. But the air district plans a more selective approach, requiring refineries to report the efficiency of various operations, comparing these with other refineries, then requiring efficiencies in specific areas. Officials of the air district and the California Air Resources Board — enthusiastically supported by representatives of the refineries — have argued that a blanket refinery cap would just push greenhouse gas emissions to other parts of the state. That's because under California's cap-and-trade system for limiting greenhouse gas emissions, companies that lower their emissions can sell credits that allow other companies' emissions to increase.
Soto of CBE said the issue of just moving emissions from one place to another is one of the problems with the cap-and-trade strategy. He argued that all communities should lower emissions. "We'll fight [the refineries] here and stand by other communities when they try to reduce emissions there," he said.
In addition, Holtzman pointed out, there are local benefits to lowering greenhouse-gas emissions. "Dozens and dozens of toxic chemicals that are not regulated are co-emitted [with greenhouse gases] from refineries," he said. "The air district will never have the time, financial, or staff resources required to measure — let alone regulate — all of them." So cutting greenhouse gas emissions makes communities near refineries safer.
Air district officials and environmentalists agree on one key point: that in addition to regulating emissions, reducing the demand for fossil fuels is critical. Gregory Nudd, the district's Air Quality Program manager, wrote in an email: "The best method to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at refineries is for folks to buy less gasoline, diesel and jet fuel." He added: "The Air District has many non-regulatory tools aimed at reducing demand for these products," such as financial and technical support for local clean energy programs. But here, too, environmentalists say the district could do more — for example, by model rules for local governments to adopt, using the California Environmental Quality Act to require new buildings to include low-carbon technologies.
Environmentalists mainly emphasize the need for quick action. "We're looking down the barrel of a gun," Holtzman told air district board members at a May meeting. "We need action from you. We don't need to lie back and wait for a very gradual cap-and-trade program."
At the same meeting, Bill Pinkham of the Sunflower Alliance said the air district's goal of drastic reductions by 2050, even if achieved, might not be fast enough. "The science shows that [climate change effects are] happening much faster," he said. "The next decade is Decade Zero. You need to put in the strongest standards you possibly can."