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Coolant can ban tops panel's agenda

Air board will vote on whether to bar an auto air-conditioner fluid that is a greenhouse gas. Critics say such a move would hurt the poor.

June 21, 2007|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

For the do-it-yourself auto mechanic, the little can with the polar bear on the front is a handy way to save some cold cash, letting them replenish a car's air conditioning fluid for about $15, versus a $150 trip to a garage.

But state air regulators now say Polar Freeze Additive and similar products are little cans of highly potent greenhouse gas, HFC 134a, harmful to real polar bears and other wildlife because it hastens melting of ice caps and other global warming effects.

The California Air Resources Board will vote today on a proposed ban of the cans and two other "early action" greenhouse gas measures that are designed to take effect by 2010. The measures are recommended by the board's staff, whose direction board members usually follow.

The vote is mandated by the global warming solutions bill (AB 32) signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last fall. But critics say the measures are both puny and punitive, hurting consumers least able to afford the extra costs of compliance while ignoring major industrial polluters.

"If I were the governor I'd be embarrassed. I don't think this program delivers anything. It is not off to a good start," said Angela Johnson Meszaros, an attorney with California Environmental Rights Alliance, who co-chairs an air board committee on environmental justice. "If they give us a list where everybody is doing their part, that's one thing. But the only people doing their part under this is poor people, and that doesn't seem right."

Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland), who co-wrote AB 32, said of the air board staff, "They have made as little movement as possible on the centerpiece of Arnold Schwarzenegger's second term, which is global warming.... They're back there with the horse and buggy."

Schwarzenegger's spokesman, Adam Mendelsohn, rejected the criticism as "totally false."

He said one of the early action measures -- which calls for the development of alternative fuels -- had been proposed by the governor himself. He noted that greenhouse gas reduction programs, including making buildings more energy efficient, speeding up renewable fuel use by power plants and requiring cleaner cement production, are underway at other state agencies.

The 11 members of the air board are appointed by and serve at the pleasure of the governor. But Mendelsohn said the board members are under no pressure to vote a particular way.

"The administration's position is that early actions are a critical part of the equation, but they are not the entire policy. What is important is that everything is done, and done right," he said.

Environment California, the American Lung Assn. and other groups said the can ban should be enacted, but along with dozens of other measures aimed at reducing emissions from cement factories, diesel trucks, commercial freezers, barnyard waste and other sources of greenhouse gases.

The third measure included in today's vote would require capturing the last bits of methane emanating from landfills. Combined, the three would reduce an estimated 13 to 28 tons of greenhouse gases annually; 174 tons of reductions are needed annually to comply with AB 32. Under the law, most of the state's global warming reductions would come after 2010.

Refrigerant manufacturers and some community activists question the fairness of banning money-saving products like the canned coolant, which they say are widely used by poor people.

An estimated 19.3 million pounds of the refrigerant are sold in the United States each year, and industry representatives estimate about 6% of that is sold in California.

The manufacturers said the ban would result in a $170-million annual windfall for auto mechanics.

The air board's environmental justice committee voted last month to recommend that the board not adopt the can ban, but instead replace it with a broader set of restrictions on HFC 134a emissions from refrigerator containers abandoned in port areas, car-crushing facilities and commercial and residential air conditioning systems.

The committee also voted against the proposal to develop low-carbon fuels, such as ethanol made from corn, contending that it could lead to food shortages.

The global warming solutions bill is one component of a multi-pronged state strategy to reduce greenhouse gases. In 2002, then-Gov. Gray Davis signed a law requiring automakers to slash emissions of carbon dioxide from new vehicles, which could yield up to one-quarter of the reductions needed by 2020.

But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has so far declined to grant a waiver from federal law needed before California can institute the requirement.

The proposed can ban would require licensed auto mechanics to replenish the HFC 134a additive, a job that can cost $150 or more. The additive was developed to replace another coolant, Freon, which the federal government banned because it damages the earth's ozone layer.

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