When Power Goes to Your Head, and Lungs

Last week, NRDC delivered a 60-day intent to sue letter to the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) in Southern California, contending they’re giving regional polluters a free pass on pollution levels and distributing bogus emission credits – sometimes in return for a hefty profit. Unfortunately, this can’t be attributed to a momentary lapse by the air district, but state data confirms a murky 17 year history of giving away these emission credits to local developers, most recently to those proposing to build unnecessary power plants in minority neighborhoods.  

In Southern California, before a new power plant, school, or any factory that might emit air pollution is designed, emission credits to offset the anticipated pollution from the new building or facility are needed. Valid emission credits are created from shutdowns of older facilities or reductions at existing facilities and require proof that the decrease in emissions is real, permanent, quantifiable, and enforceable. The whole point of the offset process is to ensure no net increase in pollution levels and air quality is upheld across the region. 

There are several layers to the situation with the air district. Our suit requires the air district to review the credits they’ve distributed during the past 17 years and figure out which ones they can actually account for. We’re confident they will still come out with a huge deficit of credits, meaning they gave away more than they had to begin with. Once they figure out which communities were given the bogus credits, the air district will need to implement a program to reduce emissions equivalent to those unlawfully given out. 

Exposing invalid emission credits isn’t the end of the story with the air district. They’re currently considering a proposal to facilitate 11 natural gas-fired power plants in or downwind of Vernon, East L.A., El Segundo, and Riverside. These areas are already home to power plants and dangerous contaminants other neighborhoods don’t want in their backyards. Just one of the 11 proposed power plants projected for the City of Vernon will likely result in killing anywhere from four to 11 people each year, causing hundreds of premature deaths over the life of the facility. The plant is planned for construction next to a heavily populated, majority Latino neighborhood.  

Our solution to the 11 power plants is to invest in renewable energy and efficiency options, solar and wind have a promising future in California.  In fact, a little over a hundred miles away in Southern California’s high desert is Tehachapi, a region that some call the “Saudi Arabia of Wind” because of its wind potential. While we work to get those sources of renewable energy on-line, the air district needs to abide by the Clean Air Act and stop doling out credits on the cheap to energy speculators.  Until then, air pollution will continue unabated in the Southland and the state of emergency will only get worse until the air district accounts for their questionable credit system and takes responsibility for the air quality they are supposed to protect.