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Cleaner air, the pandemic and fighting the EPA

A look at the L.A. skyline at sunset on a clear day. (Photo: Nadia Yong, via Shutterstock

Not everything’s been “doom and gloom” on social media during the coronavirus pandemic as trending posts have shown “Los Angeles without smog,” clear skies in India’s often-polluted airspace and dolphins swimming through the canals of Venice.

But what can we actually learn about climate change during this virtually global, economic shutdown? And what have we learned from recent history that may shape the future of climate-change discourse?

“The fact is, if we go back after this to ‘business as usual,’ the air pollution will come right back.” — Bill Magavern

The notoriously polluted skyline in Los Angeles is clearing up as a result of the lack of cars on the road from stay-at-home orders — although of late, the traffic levels are rising.  However, according to experts, the dolphins aren’t quite returning to Venice. Dolphins aside, studies are indicating a legitimate environmental resurgence worldwide.

“It’s obviously not desirable to get our clean air from a pandemic and an economic shutdown,” says Bill Magavern, policy director for the Sacramento-based Coalition for Clean Air. “The fact is, if we go back after this to ‘business as usual,’ the air pollution will come right back.”

And despite the spreading news that clean air is returning en masse globally (daily carbon emissions dropped 17% by April during “peak confinement”), the American Lung Association’s aptly timed annual “State of the Air” report paints a cloudy picture for hopeful climate activists in California.

From 2016 to 2018 — the years when the report takes its findings from— California again ranked as the worst, or one of the worst, in almost every category for clean air standards.

Bakersfield retained its spot on a separate list within the report for the worst levels nationwide for year-round PM 2.5 pollution.

“Los Angeles remains the city with the worst ozone pollution in the nation, as it has been for 20 years of the 21-year history of the report,” the American Lung Association’s research grimly states.

Long plagued by smog, the City of Angels is far from the only victim of the findings.

“This year’s report marks the second year that Santa Maria-Santa Barbara, CA, showed up on the list of the most polluted for short-term particle pollution (PM 2.5),” it reads. “Prior to the 2019 report, this city had been on the list of cleanest cities in the nation for the previous six years for the same pollutant,” the study noted.

In addition to ozone pollution, PM 2.5 levels continued rising as well.

Bakersfield retained its spot on a separate list within the report for the worst levels nationwide for year-round PM 2.5 pollution. The Fresno-Madera-Hanford metropolitan area was again the worst in the U.S. for short-term, 24-hour readings of that same pollutant.

The continued burning of diesel fuel flames the issue of air pollution even further, despite the fact that California leads the nation in electric vehicles sales,

While the Golden State sets the climate awareness standard each year for the rest of the country and most of the world to follow, it is unquestionably tasked with numerous challenges compared to the rest of the United States.

Wild fires are a main reason for this, which worsen during droughts in a tiring cycle of environmental disaster. And according to the state Department of Water Resources’ final snowpack survey of the year, the state’s snowpack was only 37% of the May average, pointing to a potentially wicked fire season.

The continued burning of diesel fuel flames the issue of air pollution even further, despite the fact that California leads the nation in electric vehicles sales, with “almost 50% of the US market.

Most air pollution in California comes from the transportation of people and goods. And the principal plan to curb air pollution involves two main strategies to reduce the number of diesel-burning engines on the road: the widespread adoption of electric vehicles and an improved public transit system.

“We need to provide people with other ways of getting around, that do not involve getting into a car, especially if it’s a single occupancy,” Magavern said.

The thorn in California’s side not only comes from the polluted air, but from those that profit from its toxicity as well.

In an article he wrote before the pandemic, he called on Gov. Gavin Newsom to increase funding for clean transportation. But given the economic impacts from COVID-19, that’s unlikely to happen in the near future. Even as the governor pledged to “set California on the fast track to zero diesel pollution by 2030,” that dream slowly seems to be turning into a nightmare by the day.

But as we look to future investments, it’s important to understand the current divestments and deregulatory actions that are being used by the federal government to hamper the fight against climate change, and what the agenda of those individuals making changes looks like.

“They purged the independent scientists and put in people whose pay depends on polluting industries,” Magavern told me about the recent changes to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Andrew Wheeler, a career coal-lobbyist, currently heads the restructured EPA, replacing Scott Pruitt, who resigned after numerous investigations of misconduct. The thorn in California’s side not only comes from the polluted air, but from those that profit from its toxicity as well.

“It’s this idea of delay or suspend, then kill the rule and then initiate a new rule.” Arsenio Mataka.

Two of state Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s staff members — Special Assistant Arsenio Mataka and Communications Director Bethany Lesser — noted the numerous lawsuits that have been filed against the federal government on behalf of California and a coalition of states that have been trying to take back the reins of  clean-air enforcement.

“It’s this idea of delay or suspend, then kill the rule and then initiate a new rule,” Mataka said, noting  the “consistent playbook” wielded by the Trump administration as it neglects requests from the scientific community to improve air standards.

“A vast majority of our lawsuits are environmental in nature,” Lesser added.

In one of those suits, filed late last year, Becerra sued the EPA after the agency attempted to revoke a waiver granted to California that would have allowed the state to implement its own greenhouse gas and vehicle emission standards, separate and more stringent than the federal government’s.

A milestone of the Act occurred in 1970, the same year that the EPA was created, when the act first authorized requirements for control of motor vehicle emissions.

Historically, since the Clean Air Act was passed, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) — which predates the EPA — has been the only state allowed to set its own emissions standards, which are typically stronger than the federal government’s requirements. The remaining states can follow either CARB or federal standards.

A milestone of the Act occurred in 1970, the same year that the EPA was created, when the act first authorized requirements for control of motor vehicle emissions. Since then, “aggregate emissions” comprised of “six common pollutants” have decreased by 74% nationally despite a population increase of 60%.

Despite the long-term success of the Clean Air Act, the “State of the Air” report shows that stronger regulations are needed to continue cleaning our air. The number of Americans living in “counties with unhealthy ozone or particulate pollution” jumped from 141 million in the 2019 report to 150 million in the 2020 study.

“So what we need to do is to appreciate how wonderful it is to actually have clean air for a period, and to make the long-term commitments that will be necessary to having clean air every day, which is crucial for our health, especially our respiratory health,” Magavern said.

 


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