L.A. air-quality district wins in Senate committee

Anti-pollution enforcers in the Los Angeles basin won a political victory Tuesday after a key Senate committee approved a plan – fought by environmentalists – supporting the officials' controversial method of banking and distributing emissions credits.

The dispute between the South Coast Air Quality Management District and environmentalists culminated in a court ruling last year that blocked the district from continuing its system of distributing and selling the credits. The court's decision favored the environmentalists, who said the AQMD's procedures favored major polluters. The ruling effectively halted the permits.

According to the district, the halt represented a $4 billion hit on the economy, including the loss of 65,000 jobs, because industries would be shut down unless they could obtain the permits to continue in operation.

The Los Angeles-area dispute, although overshadowed by public attention to the state budget meltdown, has developed into one of the year's most important air-quality battles.

The Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee voted 6-to-3 to approve legislation that would block the court's decision and allow the district to resume issuing credits that are exempt from the state's principal environmental law, the California Environmental Quality Act. The bill, SB 696 by Sen. Rod Wright, D-Los Angeles, faces other votes in both houses. The Senate energy committee's action marks the first major test of the bill in the Legislature.

The bill had been scheduled to be heard weeks ago, but it was withdrawn from the committee at the request of

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

A full-press lobbying and communications effort has sprung up to back Wright's bill, headed by the SCAQMD and the Los Angeles Unified School District, and including cities, labor organizations, the oil industry, chambers of commerce and others.

The court ruling blocked the method by which the AQMD dispenses emission credits – permission slips that 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 district said their goal was to meet clean-air standards while maintaining economic health – a difficult balance.

The AQMD said the Nov. 3 ruling by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Anne Jones 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," the district said at the time.

Environmentalists, led by the Natural Resources Defense Council, argued successfully that the district had dispensed invalid pollution credits to a myriad of polluters and energy companies, and had made money to boot. The group contended 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.

The AQMD has appealed Jones' ruling.

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