Tom Frantz

Clearing the Air: Ozone From China and Emission Reduction Credits

By Tom Frantz

Sometimes you just have to laugh when you read about San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (the Air District) attempts to pass the blame for our air pollution onto sources outside their control.

A one-hour ozone violation in Fresno during the summer of 2012 forced a fourth consecutive post-deadline violation of the original Clean Air Act ozone standard of 1991. The net result of that violation is owners of cars and light trucks in the San Joaquin Valley have to pay at least one more year of a $30 million fine to the district for extra pollution cleanup programs.

The Air District has already claimed that the Fresno violation was not the fault of Valley-based pollution but rather was an exceptional event due to a fire at a refinery in Richmond a few days earlier. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will probably not approve that claim because the argument is weak. So now the Air District is saying the violation was due to ozone pollution drifting into the area from China.

There is some evidence that ozone from China is blowing over the Pacific and entering the western United States. The levels of ozone measured near Fort Bragg in Mendocino County and near Big Sur in Monterey County have been at their highest during the winter and spring months. This is obviously not when we have our worst ozone episodes. Some of this ozone is also moving over the Central Valley but at high altitudes. It is rarely, if at all, affecting the ground-level ozone levels that are destroying lung tissue all summer long.

The Air District has tried unsuccessfully to correlate measurements from Big Sur with ozone levels in Fresno and Kern counties during the summer. Correlation coefficients have been highly variable but generally low. Any correlation is almost certainly due to random chance and other factors not being measured. But, the fact they have found a slightly positive correlation has been latched onto as gospel by the Air District. They have now stated publicly there is strong evidence showing that the one-hour ozone violation in Fresno was likely due to ozone from China.

To try and prove a stronger correlation, the Air District is authorizing about $100,000 for the ozone monitor near Big Sur to run for two more summers. They are hoping for a miracle of statistical coincidence that would allow them to publicly claim that once and for all, the ozone problem in the San Joaquin Valley is not the fault of local polluters. They will then tell the EPA to go stuff themselves with the Clean Air Act.

Meanwhile, let’s look at the farce of Emission Reduction Credits, which allow big new sources of pollution in the Valley to be mitigated by reductions that took place many years ago. There are no restrictions on new sources of pollution as long as the owner of the new source has enough money to buy emission credits from the oil companies who hold the vast majority of them.

New major pollution sources in the Valley have to be mitigated by reductions elsewhere, according to the Clean Air Act. But, it seems that every time the oil companies shut down an old piece of equipment they are given credits for the amount of pollution they have reduced. For example, ancient steam boilers are routinely dismantled because they wear out and are inefficient.

This often involves equipment that was never permitted in the first place, so the original pollution was never mitigated. But these pollution credits allow the same company to build new polluting boilers without real-time mitigation. The net result is old, unregulated pollution sources are grandfathered into the lungs of Valley residents forever.

Sometimes the oil companies sell their credits to other new polluters in the Valley such as glass factories or power plants. They can make quite a bit of money doing this because they never paid for these credits in the first place.

What was really surprising to some last year was when an oil company asked the Air District for permission to sell some of its credits outside the Valley to a new power plant proposed in Palmdale. The people of Palmdale came to the Valley and begged the Air District not to do this. They didn’t want this new source of pollution in their area. But the Air District catered to its friends in the oil industry and allowed the sale to take place.

Like I said, you just have to laugh to keep from crying sometimes.

*****

Longtime clean air advocate Tom Frantz is a retired math teacher and Kern County almond farmer. A founding member of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, he serves on the CVAQ steering committee and as president of the Association of Irritated Residents. CVAQ is a partnership of more than 70 community, medical, public health, environmental and environmental justice organizations representing thousands of residents in the San Joaquin Valley unified in their commitment to improve the health of Californians. For more information, visit www.calcleanair.org.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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