‘Many Lives at Risk’: What Pollution Rollbacks Could Mean for California and Arizona

LOS ANGELES – At the turn of the 20th century, Southern California’s oil industry was booming, with refineries belching black smoke. It got so bad that one day in 1903, Los Angeles residents woke up to skies so dark they thought was a solar eclipse.

It wasn’t an out-of-this-world event. It was smog.

And Southern California’s air quality has been the subject of headlines ever since.

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Today, the right to regulate air pollution has become the subject of another political fight between California officials and federal regulators in Washington. In late September, President Donald Trump announced that his administration will revoke California’s nearly 50-year authority to set its own vehicle standards for tailpipe emissions. California and 22 other states have filed suit. Arizona implemented California’s emission standards in 2008 but revoked them in 2012, and did not join in the lawsuit.

The recent conflict comes after Volkswagen, Ford, BMW and Honda struck a deal with California to reduce emissions and increase fuel efficiency.

Clean air advocates say air quality will be severely harmed if the White House succeeds in ending the waiver California was granted by the newly minted Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.

“Many people’s lives, many people’s health is going to be at risk because of the freezing of the emissions waiver, which is a direct attack on California’s authority,” said Chris Chavez, the deputy policy director for the Coalition for Clean Air, a California-based environmentalist nonprofit group. “California has committed to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by certain dates and certain benchmark levels, and that is going to be far more difficult without those clean car standards.”

-Video by Kyla Wilcher/Cronkite News

Experts say there are simpler ways to help fix climate change, particularly using less energy from fossil fuels. Suzanne Paulson, director at UCLA’s Center for Clean Air, said although much has been done, the waiver was a safety net for California skies.

“There are always further steps that can be taken to clean up the air more. Historically, one of the dominant sources was cars and trucks on the roadways,” Paulson said. “Partly through the waiver, we have set California-specific emissions controls that have served to clean up the air tremendously.”

Arizona struggles with poor air quality, too, according to a recent ranking from the American Fitness Index. All 10 of the worst cities for air quality in America are either in Southern California or the Phoenix area.

Chavez said he thinks many other states “are watching with concern because ultimately this will become a major legal test of states being able to act independently of the federal government to respond to local needs.”

California’s independent streak on regulation began in 1947, when Los Angeles became the first city in the country to implement local air pollution regulators. They were deemed necessary because After World War II ended, the West Coast’s aerospace industryand other manufacturing plants boomed, which resulted in much more air pollution.

Congress passed the federal Clean Air Act in 1970 to protect public health and public welfare and to regulate emissions of hazardous air pollutants for all 50 states. That same year, California was granted a waiver by the EPA, allowing it to set emissions standards more stringent than federal standards.

By 1984, the state began requiring every vehicle on the road to pass what became known as a smog check, to keep high-polluting cars off the road. Automakers responded by building vehicles specifically for California buyers, and over the years, 13 states adopted the higher standards. They will be affected by the waiver’s revocation, too.

But those standards were under attack again this week, when the Sacramento Bee reported a letter sent from the EPA to California’s chief air quality regulator threatened “to cut federal transportation funding from the state as punishment for not submitting timely pollution-control plans.”

The letter – which also said California has “the worst air quality” in the country – came in response to California having “backlogged and unapprovable” reports that did not meet the EPA’s demands for proof of compliance with the Clean Air Act.

“We’ve done all of the stuff that’s easy many years ago, we’ve done lots of stuff that’s hard as well,” said Paulson of UCLA. “Finding additional controls that will bring us to meet air quality standards is a huge challenge even without this additional tool taken away from our tool kit.”

In a press conference last week, Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, spoke about why the rollbacks pose threats for the state and the West Coast.

“Standards are necessary to protect the public health and welfare,” Nichols said. “We actually need these extra-clean cars in order to meet the health standards that are set by the federal government.”

What isn’t clear is whether the lawsuit – which also was joined by Los Angeles, New York City and Washington, D.C. – will outlast the administration it targets.

“We are still looking at a few years down the line for everything to be settled, in the best-case scenario,” Chavez said, referring to the 2020 election. “If President Trump gets re-elected, that will be a tougher issue. It could get (dragged) out well into his second term.”

Arizona Adopts First Rules to Encourage Electric Vehicles

PHOENIX – Tesla recently announced major layoffs across all its operations, hoping to cut costs and price its electric vehicles to be more competitive with gasoline-powered vehicles. The move came after the Trump administration pledged to end Obama-era federal tax credits for electric vehicles of up to $7,500.

Some states have policies to subsidize and encourage electric vehicle use, but Arizona only recently has taken its first steps in that direction. The transition to EVs will require major investments in incentives and infrastructure, but the price could actually be less than the environmental and health costs of the status quo.

Europe on Track

Outside the U.S., electrification technologies are more widespread and accepted, and not just in passenger cars. At Formula E races across Europe, electric cars compete for coveted international titles. There are 22 cars from nine manufacturers on the FIA-sanctioned circuit, all powered by electric motors that can propel the cars to nearly 150 mph.

ON Semiconductor of Phoenix designs and manufactures the computer chips used in these racing motors, whose whine sounds a lot like a blender with a missing blade. ON also designed chips for Tesla to develop its pilot technology.

“We’re now entering season five of Formula E racing, which is taking the race cars and electrifying them. So now it’s going from a combustion engine that’s burning gas into a battery-powered vehicle,” said David Somo, senior vice president of strategy and marketing for ON.

Racing Formula E in Europe was a natural fit for the technology, he said. Europe has enacted several environmental policies that support alternative fuels designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Somo said. In the U.S., electricity is considered an alternative fuel under the Energy Policy Act of 1992.

It’s not like Americans aren’t buying EVs. According to Green Tech Media, 2018 was a record year for electric vehicles, with 361,307 units sold. But electrics still represent a small fraction of vehicles on U.S. roads.

“Americans are buying SUVs and light duty trucks at a much, much higher rate, where last year we sold a little less than half a million electric vehicles. We sold over 10 million SUVs and light duty trucks,” said Paul Lewis, vice president of policy at the ENO Center for Transportation, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit think-tank focused on transportation issues.

“Transportation has been particularly difficult to decarbonize. And in fact, vehicle-miles traveled is growing, and so are the emissions related to transportation. So we have a huge environmental challenge in front of us related to transportation.

“Having everybody drive alone in their own cars is becoming untenable and not workable in a modern economy where you need to have densities and you have lots of people being very productive working closely together. And that’s where we have to kind of think more holistically about our transportation system.”

Tourism and population growth

It’s a particular challenge for a state whose top industry is tourism.

That means as a growing number of travelers come to Arizona, more cars will be on the road. That will be in addition to the increasing number of drivers added as more people continue to move to Maricopa County each year.

“The effects of climate change are here now,” said Dan Lashof, the U.S. director of the World Resources Institute, a D.C. nonprofit that researches sustainability issues. “We have a very short window of opportunity to really transform the way we produce and consume energy, eliminate emissions of heat-trapping pollution into the atmosphere.”

At one time, Arizona drew people seeking relief from respiratory problems. Now, Maricopa County receives a grade of “F” almost every year from the American Lung Association’s “State of the Air” report. Phoenix ranks as the eighth most polluted city in the country, measured by ozone level.

Ryan Cornell of Phoenix drives a Tesla Model 3, the latest of several electric cars he has owned. Yes, the car was expensive – prices start at more than $45,000 – but he sees it as an investment.

“Whether it’s five years, 10 years or sometime beyond that, we need to go to 100 percent, and we need to go to 100 percent renewable energy,” said Cornell, whose master’s thesis at Harvard Extension School compared the costs of EVs with the those of vehicles powered by internal combustible engines.

“Clean air is clean air. A liveable climate is a liveable climate. And I think people forget, too, that … the EPA was founded by (President Richard) Nixon. There’s no reason that everybody can’t be on board with some of these policies.

“We can’t tell someone who has health problems related to pollution, ‘Well, that’s a fake cost, that’s not a real cost.’ Like, that’s just as real as paying for car insurance or your monthly payment on the car or your electric bill.”

In December, the Arizona Corporation Commission adopted new policies to encourage Arizonans to switch to electric vehicles and utilities to invest in infrastructure to support it.

“Because of the nature of the power that electric vehicles are going to use, you have to be ahead and start developing programs and policies and tell utilities to prepare for it,” Commissioner Boyd Dunn said.

“Now, some are already doing that. The Salt River Project, that we don’t regulate, is already out there promoting electric vehicles … locating charging stations on their infrastructure. I know APS (the state’s largest power provider) has a program already, but they’re small.”

Dunn also noted the economic advantages EVs could bring to the state, such as the Lucid Motors plant planned for Casa Grande.

“We want to encourage the electric vehicle industry to locate in Arizona,” he said.

The commission received several letters objecting to the new policies.

“And I’ve heard from individuals who say, ‘Well, I don’t intend to have an electric vehicle. I don’t want to be paying a subsidy to let others have electric vehicles,’” Dunn said.

Electric cars are expensive, and building infrastructure to support those cars comes at a high cost – one residents may not be willing to pay. But at what cost to human health and the environment?