When it comes to protecting the planet from global warming, it’s not just the elephant in the china shop we should fear, it’s the rat in our midst.
Earlier this month, President Trump announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the historic Paris Agreement, dealing a blow to international efforts to combat climate change. Meanwhile our own Bay Area Air Quality Management District is poised to allow East Bay refineries to increase greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 25 percent. This would erode California’s efforts to advance climate policy in the absence of leadership from Washington.
For more than five years, a coalition of East Bay environmental justice advocates has negotiated with the Air District – whose primary charge is to protect public health – to cap emissions of greenhouse gases and toxic co-pollutants from East Bay refineries.
Their achievement, the proposed Rule 12-16, is a profoundly important first step. As originally written, it would limit greenhouse gas emissions from refineries while providing the co-benefit of capping release of deadly airborne co-pollutants such as PM2.5. Exposure to PM2.5, a form of microscopic particulate matter, is harmful to health and can be fatal. The emissions disproportionately affect people living near refineries.
But the damage from East Bay isn’t just local. The slew of pollutants they emit accumulate in the San Joaquin Valley, adding to the miasma of airborne pollutants delivered from interstate traffic, farming and oil drilling. The valley has the worst air quality and the highest asthma rate for children in the nation.
Jack Broadbent, CEO of the Air District, praised the proposed ruling, declaring that the District’s Board of Directors had “set the stage for a first in the nation rule to cap greenhouse gas emissions from our region’s five refineries.” “As the nation steps back from the Paris climate agreement,” proclaimed Broadbent, “the Bay Area and California must, more than ever, continue to step up and fill the leadership vacuum.”
But just last week, in a midnight-hour move, Broadbent’s staff slipped text into Rule 12-16 that eviscerated the hard fought negotiation effort, allowing for an almost 25 percent increase in greenhouse gas emissions from East Bay refineries.
That’s right, a public agency responsible for protecting the health of Bay Area citizens wants to enable refineries to increase emissions of climate-destabilizing greenhouse gases and increase air pollution.
It’s not difficult to imagine why refineries would want to strong-arm the Air District into doing this. For years, oil industry representatives have applied increasing pressure to expand their capacity to pollute. Why? So they can import and locally refine tar sands bitumen, the most environmentally devastating and polluting form of crude on the planet.
The Air District appears to have buckled. Moreover, their last-minute reversal runs directly against the grain of California’s ambitious efforts to reduce statewide emissions of greenhouse gases.
On Wednesday, June 21, Air District Board members must seize a crucial opportunity to remove the debilitating language surreptitiously inserted into Rule 12-16 by Air District staff. They should return the rule’s power to cap refinery emissions and vote to put it into effect as it was originally intended.
Board Members must not squander the historic opportunity to create a safer, more livable and more just future for the Bay Area as they advance California’s bold efforts to enact smart climate policy.
Deborah Levoy is a board member of 350 Silicon Valley. Richard Nevle is a San Jose resident. Janet Stromberg is an engineer, retired after 25 years at the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. They wrote this for The Mercury News.