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'Reform' Imperils a Force for Clean Air

Schwarzenegger's plan could kill a board responsible for giant strides.

August 08, 2004|Marc B. Haefele | Marc B. Haefele, news editor of the Los Angeles Alternative Press, is heard on KPCC-FM (89.3) on Fridays.

The worn 1981 coupe in my driveway emits more pollution -- in the form of oil drips, vapors and gas fumes -- while parked under its tarp than a new Honda Accord going 70 mph. OK, only under certain, limited conditions. But there's no denying the astonishing technological advances in less than a generation that have made cars run cleaner. And a good deal of the credit goes to the California Air Resources Board, which has just turned 35. The board is not just the national but the global leader in the arcane science of saving air quality from automotive civilization.

The air board's pioneering regulations and findings -- including the catalytic converter and unleaded gas of the 1970s and diesel anti-pollution software approved last month -- are imitated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and populous states such as New York, New Jersey and Texas. The European Union and Japan are also avid followers. That's because California is the largest auto market in America, and the air board has learned, through cajoling, regulation and the threat of regulation, how to get what it wants from automakers seeking access to that market.

The board has inspired air-clearing devices and rules too numerous to name. And although we may not have the best air quality in the nation, California would certainly be a lot worse without the agency.

But the air board as we know it may soon be history. The agency is a major target in the gun sights of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's California Performance Review panel, whose bureaucracy-slashing recommendations were released last month. The panel concluded that the state's more than 300-agency maze of departments and commissions was unaccountable and "fails the people of California." The review panel promised that its recommended reforms, if implemented, would save $32 billion in five years.

Many agencies mentioned in the report should be revised, reorganized or even eliminated. But if the commission really had carried out a "performance review," the air board should have received a gold star, not the lowly status of a division in a proposed Department of the Environment.

Some environmentalists and legislators suspect this recommendation aims to neuter an agency whose regulations have long been the bane of automakers, fuel refiners and other big industries. Gail Ruderman Feuer of the Natural Resources Defense Council says that, before making its findings, the review panel interviewed many business figures but no one from her group or other leading environmental organizations. "This looks like a gubernatorial power grab," she charged.

The California Performance Review's official line by no means dispels this suspicion. In describing the need for a super-agency, Chris Reynolds, a panel member, deplored the air board's "independence."

"The governor is elected by the people," he said, "and in order to be accountable to the people, the air board should be directly accountable, through the new environment secretary, to the governor."

Yet the 11 current air board members, chosen for various areas of expertise, are all appointees (six, in fact, were appointed by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson) who serve at the governor's pleasure. If Schwarzenegger thinks the air board isn't channeling the popular will, he can replace its members. In actuality, board firings have been rare. That the board's clean-air progress has been constant through administrations as diverse as Ronald Reagan's and Jerry Brown's reflects its relative independence and its popularity with most Californians.

Feuer says public input would decrease grievously if the air board were abolished. She says the board creates a forum in which anyone -- elected officials, Detroit executives, electric-car fanatics -- can testify on air-quality concerns. "One of the board's major expenses is its public record-keeping function," Feuer said. And if the history of 20th century air pollution control is ever written, much of it will come from the board's meeting archives.

State Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) said the proposed Department of the Environment "would lack the transparency and accountability of CARB." For instance, she wondered, would even the media be admitted to its decision-making sessions? And with "this cutoff of public participation," would the air board be as effective an agency?

The board has had its failures. One was to require the clean-air additive MTBE in gasoline. In the late 1990s, the additive's leakage from underground storage tanks was found in drinking water.

Reynolds, the review panel member, claimed this was an example of the need for "cross-media accountability": Had the MTBE decision been made along with water-quality officials, as would be the case in the new department, the costly mistake might have been avoided.

To Sierra Club officials, the proposal's timing is questionable. The club just released its Highway Health Hazards report, a compendium of several dozen major medical studies suggesting that automotive air pollution causes 100,000 deaths a year nationally -- twice as many as those who die in car accidents. Tucking the world's leading agency in air pollution reduction into a big bureaucracy hardly seems a step toward addressing this problem. "We want to see CARB continue as the leading protector of air quality with all its traditional public participation and independence," said California Sierra Club legislative spokesman Bill Magavem.

Kuehl thinks that the proposed deletion of the air board's independence would face a tough fight in the state Assembly and Senate.

"We would have to think it's a good idea," Kuehl said. And so far, it's not clear that the Democratic-dominated Legislature can be persuaded that it is.

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