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Will California's Cap and Trade Be Fair? | The Nation

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Will California's Cap and Trade Be Fair?

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Back in 2006, when the California Legislature was wrangling over AB 32, then-Assemblywoman Fran Pavley added language that would force regulators to pay attention to those parts of the state suffering from especially poor air quality. According to Angela Johnson Meszaros, a lawyer and veteran environmental justice advocate, “There were lots of things that got incorporated into the language in the service of building a coalition, so they could have environmental justice communities pushing for adoption of AB 32.”

This story was made possible by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

About the Author

Madeline Ostrander
Madeline Ostrander
Madeline Ostrander is a contributing editor to YES! Magazine and a freelance writer based in Seattle.

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Then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was pushing for a carbon cap-and-trade program; still, the law’s language allowed the ARB to consider a variety of methods for regulating greenhouse gas emissions, including a tax or fee on carbon dioxide. It also required the state to assemble a committee of environmental justice experts to provide input on the regulations. Among the committee’s ten members were Martha Dina Argüello of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, CBE executive director Bill Gallegos, and Meszaros, who was a co-chair.

By the time the committee members began meeting in 2007, they had already soured on cap and trade. For one thing, regional pollution-trading rules in Southern California had a poor track record. In the 1990s, air regulators tried letting factories and refineries in the Los Angeles region offset their pollution by paying for programs to scrap old cars. Four refineries—three of them next to Wilmington—bought most of the pollution credits, which let them off the hook for installing pollution control equipment and created a hot spot, according to a 1999 report. A regional cap-and-trade program for smog achieved little in its early years because the emission cap was too high, and in 2000, during the California energy crisis, polluters exceeded emission limits. That experience gave the committee doubts about instituting a large-scale cap-and-trade program to deal with greenhouse gas emissions.

On the ARB’s final implementation plan, the committee wrote that the agency “essentially proposes an international free-market trading program with a laundry list of existing activities appended to it, none of which have been analyzed for how they square with the basic principles of AB 32—to develop a program that both maximizes greenhouse gas reductions and maximizes the state’s other environmental, public and social goals.” The committee and the agency had reached an impasse. “We thought we were basically blown off,” says Gallegos. In 2010, several members of the committee decided to sue.

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A number of prominent pro-environment voices took the ARB’s side. The Environmental Defense Fund became an adviser to the ARB on the case. Grist blogger David Roberts criticized the legal challenge: “It looks to me like a small group of irritated residents are putting their grievances before an extraordinary, ambitious, comprehensive, and wildly popular state program that will improve a lot of lives, provide reliable markets for clean energy, and possibly influence the course of national or international climate policy.”

The ARB contends that AB 32 is intentionally focused on greenhouse gas emissions. “We have a whole array of programs that deal with a variety of different kinds of contaminants…and we don’t want people to somehow get into a mind-set where they think that AB 32 is the tool they have to use to deal with those,” says ARB spokesman Dave Clegern. The ARB’s own analysis, focused on Wilmington as a case study, asserts that several of AB 32’s programs, including cap and trade, will make the air cleaner by improving fuel efficiency and promoting clean energy. The California Legislature has also required reinvestment of a portion of the millions of dollars in annual revenue from cap and trade in “disadvantaged communities,” so AB 32 could spur economic development in places like Wilmington.

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In many ways, it’s a miracle that AB 32 has survived, especially during an economic recession with high unemployment. In the fall, the Western States Petroleum Association launched a petition drive to stop the carbon auction, calling it a job killer. Now the California Chamber of Commerce is suing the ARB, claiming that cap and trade is an unconstitutional tax. While environmental justice advocates still oppose the cap-and-trade program, they fiercely defend the law itself. “We’re really committed to AB 32. We don’t want it to go away,” says Gallegos. He and Argüello are talking about reconvening their committee in a watchdog role. “What we need…is a really high level of expertise from within the environmental justice and health community that can review the data that’s being produced on what’s happening with the trading program,” Argüello says.

This past summer, the heat waves got people in Wilmington talking about climate change. It was too hot to close the windows and keep out the smells and sounds of industry. To many residents, climate change, the refineries and the brown air all feel like the same problem. Octaviano Vega, a welder from Salamanca, Mexico, who works for an oil company near Wilmington, says climate change worries him. Two years ago, he joined the campaign to defend AB 32 “because of the pollution, and that is related to climate change.” Now he says he fears for his daughter’s future: “Just the heat we’re having, it’s bad enough.”

George Zornick writes that President Obama has made a strong choice for the head of the EPA.

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