California’s diesel rule gets renewed scrutiny

A News Analysis
When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger traveled to Copenhagen to tout his record battling global warming, at home a very different story developed. He told his top air-quality regulators to change – and, critics fear, potentially weaken — a premier regulation curbing diesel soot.

The paradox was not apparent in Denmark: The governor, his popularity at a record low in California, didn’t mention the setback involving a nationally watched regulation governing a million trucks and school buses.

But at home, the action marked a significant political and policy event. Gov. Schwarzenegger demanded that the diesel regulation be retooled by the Air Resources Board to “help small and mid-size companies meet these important air quality regulations.” The governor appoints all the members of the 11-person board, including the chairwoman.

“It is clear,” the governor said, that “clear responsible action is needed.”

The ARB, accustomed to public pressure, frequently tweaks regulations, but rarely does so at the direct, public orders of the governor. But this regulation already was clouded by controversy. It was not formally delayed or rescinded as two commissioners wanted, but the fact that new provisions will be added under pressure from the governor reflects the political intensity surrounding the issue.  

It also shows the susceptibility of the governor, not for the first time, to bow to pressure.

The governor, in a carefully worded public statement, said that despite the new provisions he seeks, the “final 2014 implementation date” will not be affected. He did not mention the initial January 2011 date.

The ARB says the timetable of the regulation remains unchanged, although environmentalists who track the board’s activities said a startup delay is likely. “There’s no question,” said Bill Magavern, director of Sierra Club California. “And there is a danger that by accommodating the truckers, the ARB will lose some of the early benefits of cleaning up the fleet.”

The board itself says the regulation is going forward as planned, and is being altered to reflect the impact of the recession on the diesel vehicle industry – an impact that the industry itself repeatedly raised before the ARB voted on the rule.

The potential delay reflects a political victory of sorts for the diesel industry, which includes numerous small and mid-size companies that opposed the proposed regulation from the beginning. It also reflects an embarrassment for some newspapers that editorialized in favor of the original regulation a year ago, despite opposition from the industry, and now are editorializing in favor of the new provisions.

 “We’re definitely disappointed at this delay. What this means is that a child living in the Central Valley will have to wait longer to breathe clean air,” said Matt Vander Sluis, who handles global warming issues for the Planning and Conservation League.

The ARB acted after public criticism erupted over a key staffer’s falsification of his academic credentials. The ARB staffer, Hien Tran, did not really have a Ph.D. from UC Davis as he claimed. That admission cast a cloud over the report he headed that served as a critical underpinning of the new regulation.

The scientific validity of Tran’s study was not the issue – at least not initially. But as criticism grew from some in the scientific community, the health report was scuttled and a new one ordered in its place.  On the board, the lead critic of the report was Dr. John Telles, a Fresno cardiologist, who was angered that many on the board did not learn of the credential falsification before they voted on the regulation — even though top ARB staffers and Chairwoman Mary Nichols were aware of the problem.

“We take the employee misconduct very seriously but it should not affect an extremely important public health measure that has been extensively reviewed throughout the scientific community. We have tightened up our procedures to ensure anincident like this never happens again,” Nichols said.
The new regulation will prevent thousands of premature deaths every year in the state and save billions of dollars in health care costs, the administration says. The ARB estimated the financial impact of the regulation at $4.5 billion to $5.5 billion, which includes the cost of fitting vehicles with anti-pollution devices.

According to an ARB analysis, the new standards are projected to prevent 4,000 premature deaths, 110,000 asthma-related cases, 9,200 cases of acute bronchitis and 680,000 lost work days over 20 years. The requirements also would save up to $26 billion in health care cost by 2030, according to air board projections. The rule requires truck owners to install diesel exhaust filters on their rigs by Jan. 1, 2011, with nearly all vehicles upgraded by 2014.

The new regulations do not apply to snow-removal equipment and other such vehicles that run less than 100 hours per year. Emergency vehicles, agricultural equipment and vehicles that run on less than 25 horsepower also would be exempt.

“There is going to be a series of workshops and an update to the board in April with some new provisions and a new health report,” said ARB spokeswoman Mary Salas Fricke.
The ARB, heeding the governor, ordered its staff  “to return to the Board next April with a new provision that would provide truck fleets more flexibility in cleaning up their diesel emissions under the state’s Truck and Bus Rule that was adopted in December of last year, in light of the recession’s effect on the industry.”

The ARB said “the down economy has reduced the amount of time trucks have operated, thus reducing harmful diesel emissions that would have occurred during normal economic times.”

Many in the Capitol in both parties believe Schwarzenegger is not deeply engaged on key issues. But that clearly is not true on global warming policies, which he sees as his administration’s legacy. He has not hesitated to wield clout over the ARB, up to and including the firing of the chairman.

“They (board members) are all appointed and at any point he could take off one of those members and replace him with any other member.  The board has prized its independence, but they are going to listen to what the governor wants,” Magavern said.

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