Oil industry politics ruled cap-and-trade deal

Smokestacks on a geothermal power plant near the Salton Sea in Southern California's Imperial Valley.(Photo: Tom Grundy, via Shutterstock)

Over 35 years ago, I came to pick up my fifth and third grade sons from school and found them making “Santa beards” out of the foaming toxic waste that flooded their playground. Later that night, I watched my youngest have a seizure at the dinner table as a result. Ever since, my Inland Valley community and I have been fighting for our right to live and breathe without getting sick.

We’ve had momentous victories, but we’ve also listened to a lot of lies over the decades.

Wealthy rail yard executives have told us they can’t afford to plant trees that would slow their air pollution that has spiked local asthma rates to 48 percent, despite reporting annual profits in the billions. Warehouse corporations say the truck pollution they bring is acceptable, because they’ll provide well-paying jobs. They never do.

The legislators behind these laws have lied to us in order to sell our lungs to the oil industry for political points.

As our state legislature passed cap-and-trade laws AB 398 and AB 617 this month, we heard some of the most audacious lies yet. We heard politicians take advantage of the language of our struggle for justice in order to win so-called progressive political points.

But the fact remains: they passed a law that avoids upsetting the oil industry lobbyists and makes no real progress. The laws claim to finally protect low-income communities of color, like my neighbors in the Inland Valley, from decades of toxic pollution. They don’t. That’s just political spin.

Neither of the laws (AB 398 and AB 617) get at the core of solving our most entrenched environmental justice issues – and in some cases make matters worse. AB 398 is part of a continued trend of concessions to the oil industry, allowing them to tie the hands of regulatory agencies meant to curb their emissions in our community. Not only will it not work to cut greenhouse gases, it undermines other programs that would.

AB 617, although filled with the green buzzwords and social justice concepts that earned it support from environmental groups, is not the progressive air quality policy it claims to be. The law is simply a counterbalance to the oil industry give away of AB 398, but doesn’t change the way we can clean air in our most impacted communities. Most of the air pollution monitoring provisions it puts in place are already required by new EPA and Air District regulations. The good ideas it sells, like requiring oil refinery plants to use cleaner technology, are loaded with broad language and obvious loopholes that make it unenforceable in the real world.

Gov. Jerry Brown, who likes to call himself progressive, has used the label to dole out poor policies and broken promises. The legislators behind these laws have lied to us in order to sell our lungs to the oil industry for political points. Assemblymember Sabrina Cervantes (D-Corona) is one of the only representatives admitting the truth. Honorably, she refused to vote in favor of both bills on the grounds that neither would improve the severe pollution impacts on the lives of her constituents.

At the end of the day, we who live next to rail yards, warehouses, refineries, and transportation corridors, bear the worst consequences from bad policies. It’s our children who will wake up coughing because they stayed outside too long after school. It’s our elders who will die too early from pollution-induced emphysema.

Those of us in environmental justice communities have come to expect lies from people in power. But the lies of California’s cap and trade laws, using the language of our fight for justice to appear sympathetic while doing nothing, is especially shameful.

Ed’s Note: Penny Newman is a prominent environmental justice advocate and founder of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice.

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