California Cap & Trade Extension Comes with Cleaner Air, Too

AB 617 is a victory for California's air quality and public health.

One of the bills recently enacted as a companion to the extension of California’s carbon pollution cap and trade law extension is AB 617, principally authored by Assembly Member Cristina Garcia. This bill will lead to significant improvements in protecting California communities from air pollution. It has two completely new features and increases fines for air pollution violations, reducing the likelihood that businesses can simply write off violations as a cost of doing business.

First, the bill sets up a program of local governance of air pollution from both mobile and stationary sources (like a mini-Air Quality Management Plan for you Clean Air Act nerds). But instead of a regional plan like that recently enacted by South Coast AQMD, plans under AB 617 would be local and would be in areas selected by the state Air Resources Board (ARB) after review of monitoring and other data.

Here is how these plans will work: ARB has until October 1, 2018 to prepare a statewide strategy to reduce emissions of toxic air contaminants and criteria pollutants in “communities affected by a high cumulative exposure burden.” Importantly, since vehicles such as diesel trucks can be heavy contributors to local air quality problems, the law provides that that statewide strategy must include both stationary and mobile sources.

ARB will provide technical grants to community-based organizations to help develop emission control programs for both mobile and stationary sources. Local air districts, like South Coast Air Quality Management Board, would then have a year to submit a community emissions reduction program to ARB that must: “result in emissions reductions in the community, based on monitoring or other data.”

This is an important idea because it narrows the focus of air quality protections from the regional to the community level. Some have criticized it because as untested and claimed it may not work, but that can be said of nearly any new idea. But now we have an opportunity to work together with communities, as well as with the Air Resources Board and local air districts to achieve success.

The second new feature will put an end to “grandfathering” of air pollution from old stationary sources that are within the cap and trade system. These facilities all needed to get permits from their local air districts to operate, but most do not have to update them unless there are significant modifications done. This provided a perverse incentive to keep running old, outdated equipment.

AB 617 puts all of these facilities on a schedule to be upgraded to a standard called Best Available Retrofit Control Technology, or BARCT, by December 31, 2023. BARCT is defined in California Health and Safety Code as: “an emission limitation that is based on the maximum degree of reduction achievable.” In terms of priority, the statute provides that:

The schedule shall give highest priority to those permitted units that have not modified emissions-related permit conditions for the greatest period of time. The schedule shall not apply to an emissions unit that has implemented BARCT due to a permit revision or a new permit issuance since 2007.

This is a positive change in California law that will help clean up the air where polluting industrial facilities are located. Some have criticized the statute for retaining a provision that they contend may allow oil refineries to avoid installing new equipment by using emission reduction credits that have been acquired under the South Coast AQMD RECLAIM program. However, RECLAIM is being phased out by South Coast. NRDC is participating in the phase-out working group in part to ensure that RECLAIM credits are not misused to avoid bringing old refineries up to BARCT.

These are positive developments to address air pollution from both stationary sources, like oil refineries, and mobile sources, like diesel trucks. AB 617 would have been very tough to pass without being linked to the California cap and trade extension bill, AB 398. AB 617 will be signed into law on Wednesday, July 26, 2017, and NRDC will be there to celebrate this victory for air quality and public health.

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