Amid full-press lobbying, Legislature sides with L.A. air regulators

The Legislature early Saturday morning approved one of the hardest-fought bills of the year, allowing the South Coast Air Quality Management District to resume its system of distributing emissions credits that had been blocked last year in the courts.

The AQMD, which mounted a full-bore lobbying and communications effort, said 65,000 jobs in the Los Angeles basin had been placed in jeopardy because the court decision, siding with environmentalists, blocked the credits as a violation of the state's environmental quality laws.

The credits allow an entity, such as a power plant or a factory, to operate and emit pollution. Entities that do not pollute are credited with their performance, and those credits can be obtained by those who do. The goal is to meet clean-air standards while maintaining economic health — a difficult balance. The AQMD has "banked" and distributed the credits for years.

The bill authored by Sen. Rod Wright, D-Los Angeles, received final approval after marathon bargaining sessions and parliamentary maneuvering in which the original number of the bill was changed and it was amended in a hastily-called committee hearing. A key player in the negotiations was Richard Polanco, AQMD's lobbyist and a former state Senator from an L.A. district.

Wright's bill, SB 827, takes effect in January, assuming it is signed by the governor. It would have taken effect immediately, but it failed to muster the needed two-thirds votes in the Assembly needed for urgency measures.

Environmentalists contended that AQMD's procedures for dispensing emissions credits violated the California Environmental Quality Act by favoring polluters and allowing excessive pollutants into the air.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, contended the district had dispensed invalid pollution credits to a myriad of polluters and energy companies — and had made money to boot. NRDC also said that many of those who got the credits — which were intended for essential public services like schools and hospitals – actually went to entities with the ability to obtain the best air-quality control technology available and could pay large amounts for the credits.

AQMD rejected the allegations and bitterly opposed the Nov. 3 ruling by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Anne Jones, which effectively froze projects, both public and private.

"The affected facilities include essential public services, such as sewage treatment plants, hospitals, schools, and landfill gas renewable energy which would generate about 150 megawatts," AQMD said at the time. Officials added that Jones' decision weakened a sagging economy and crippled a system that had been created to cut pollution.

Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, earlier urged the governor and Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols to intervene in the dispute.

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