Pollution Trading and Environmental Justice

Pollution Trading and Environmental Justice
Chevron Oil Field in western Kern County. Photo by Tom Frantz

By Tom Frantz

We are in a state of emergency regarding our warming climate. Our air quality is directly related as well. The combustion of fuel for energy has to end soon. If that happens, there is the promise of much cleaner and healthier air in regions such as the San Joaquin Valley.

But the State of California is moving backward. Even in the face of catastrophic wildfires, which foretell the future of the planet, the state is allowing the biggest pollution sources to continue offsetting their emissions rather than directly reducing them. Reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are far too slow to meet stated future goals where California, and the rest of the world, must reduce actual emissions to around 5% of their current levels over the next 25 years. 

Environmental justice communities were given the false promise of cleaner air under California’s climate change programs back in 2006. Ideally, greenhouse gases (GHGs) would be reduced because we reduce the burning of fuel. Air pollution would come down proportionately.

Environmental justice advocates cried foul more than 10 years ago when the governor and the state legislature insisted on trading schemes such as cap-and-trade plus the low-carbon fuel standard to provide the bulk of the reductions. Environmentally burdened communities had already experienced too many pollution trading schemes, which left the pollution locally and enriched others elsewhere.

Here in the San Joaquin Valley, the pollution trading has centered on emission reduction credits. New sources of pollution can be offset by credits from equipment that was shut down many years ago. This includes mostly equipment that would no longer be legal if it were operated today, but the credits are sold to anyone wanting to build a polluting facility.

This system of credits has turned out to be corrupted with the air district having allowed big polluters to claim many bogus credits. The state only recently took a thorough look at this crooked system and pointed out the many ways the credit claims had been done illegally going back 30 or more years.

Even with public exposure to this cheating, nothing is being done about most of these bogus credits. The local air board basically insists on keeping the status quo because anything logical and fair might hurt oil industry profits.

A state task force recently looked at the trading schemes for greenhouse gases in California. Its conclusions whitewash the different programs and call for more of the same as that is good for business. There is no evidence the task force actually considered the effects of these trading schemes on environmental justice communities, which are exposed to the worst air pollution. They were too busy justifying the system’s benefits for big polluters.

So far, the state has allowed more than 200 million tons of GHG emissions to be offset by companies such as Chevron and PG&E. These companies have paid for emissions to be reduced elsewhere and passed the costs unfairly onto consumers. This represents a racist and regressive tax on the poor.

The offset money is paying for the construction of high-speed rail and manure digesters on Smithfield-owned hog farms in Missouri instead of localized reductions here and now. There is no guarantee that emissions are being reduced anywhere near the rate of the emissions they are replacing.

There is certainly no improvement in pollution levels for the communities living with the corresponding air pollution because it has not been reduced even one iota. Many of these projects are increasing emissions locally and further burdening low-income communities of color.

After 10 years of reducing GHG emissions in California, polluting power plants continue to spew the same amount of climate warming emissions and health damaging air pollution. The oil fields in locations like Kern County are just as busy as ever burning fossil fuel to make steam to get more oil out of the ground. Oil operations are one of the chief reasons that Kern’s air quality is the worst in the nation.

State GHG emissions from transportation are also as high as ever. But somewhere, we are assured, an offset program is taking care of this mess. It doesn’t add up, but the state is banking on it. They are gambling on the future of the planet in order to keep these big polluters and their stockholders happy. Meanwhile, we continue to suffer from air pollution and the wildfires pouring smoke into the valley will only get worse if we fail to stabilize our climate.

Offset trading schemes are the result of White, male-dominated, racist policies in California. No kinder words describe what is happening. But it is not only low-income communities of color located near pollution sources that will continue to suffer.

These trading programs will end up hurting the poorest areas around the globe the worst because they are not getting the actual GHG reductions essential for a livable future. But the pocketbooks of rich White males are protected and continue to increase.

The State Air Resources Board heard a report just last month that the agency is filled with racist policies and unfair practices toward people of color among the staff.

Making electricity, running vehicles and heating buildings by combustion of fuel must end. That means an end to importing fossil fuel and an end to oil and gas extraction in California. We can’t meet any reasonable GHG goals without changing our entire way of life.

Racism has to end simultaneously. The state is playing with the future of the planet by catering to the rich, White status quo at the top rungs of society. It is dangerously delaying the true and just actions that are needed for preserving life as we know it on this planet.


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 (CVAQ), he serves on its steering committee and as president of the Association of Irritated Residents. The CVAQ is a partnership of more than 70 community, medical, public health and environmental justice organizations representing thousands of residents in the San Joaquin Valley unified in their commitment to improving the health of Californians. For more information, visit www.calcleanair.org.


  • Community Alliance

    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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