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Groups to fight plan for trading carbon emissions

February 20, 2008|Margot Roosevelt | Times Staff Writer

Low-income community groups in five California cities launched a statewide campaign Tuesday to "fight at every turn" any global-warming regulation that allows industries to trade carbon emissions, saying it would amount to "gambling on public health."

The 21-point "Environmental Justice Movement Declaration" challenges the stance of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a national advocate of a cap-and-trade program that would allow heavy polluters, often located in poor neighborhoods, to partly buy their way out of lowering their emissions.

"Under a trading scheme, 11 power plants to be built around Los Angeles could offset emissions by extracting methane from coal seams in Utah or planting trees in Manitoba," said Jane Williams of the California Communities Against Toxics, which fights pollution in low-income areas.

The defiant tone of news conferences in Los Angeles, Fresno, Oakland, Sacramento and San Diego indicated that political turbulence might be ahead as the state Air Resources Board hammers out a strategy to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as required under a 2006 law.

Until now, the debates over how to implement the law have been conducted in polite workshops with industry and environmental groups offering technical testimony to state air board officials. The agency must design a plan, due at the end of this year, to ratchet down emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, an effort that is likely to affect virtually every industry in the state.

"Cap and trade is a charade to continue business as usual," said Angela Johnson Meszaros, director of the California Environmental Rights Alliance.

Environmental justice groups instead favor carbon fees on polluting industries, a strategy endorsed by many economists as simpler and more transparent, although politically tough to enact.

Williams and Meszaros are co-chairs of the Air Board's Environmental Justice Advisory Committee, set up under the 2006 global warming law to counsel the state on how to avoid disproportionate effects on low-income communities.

The global warming legislation requires the board to consider cap and trade, and the governor's strong advocacy of the system makes its adoption likely. The debate is likely to center on how to design such a regulatory regime. One issue is whether to auction off carbon emissions permits or simply give them to polluting industries.

A group of Western states and Canadian provinces is designing a regional trading program. And the climate bill with the most support in Congress, sponsored by Sens. John W. Warner (R-Va) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), includes a cap-and-trade system.

The 18 groups that signed the declaration included the San Joaquin Valley Latino Environmental Advance Project, Oakland's West County Toxics Coalition, the L.A. chapter of the Physicians for Social Responsibility and Delano's Assn. of Irritated Residents.

Notably absent were any of the big mainstream environmental groups, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council or the Sierra Club, both of which declined to comment publicly on the environmental justice declaration.

For the most part, national environmental groups are backing cap-and-trade plans, even though many of them would prefer the politically unpalatable carbon fee or tax. The proceeds of auctioning off credits, some groups argue, could be distributed to low-income communities.

Meszaros said she didn't trust an auction system. "We're concerned that proceeds from an auction won't be applied to transitioning us to a zero-carbon future. State law requires that fees be used for the issue for which the fee is assessed. But with budget shortfalls in California, proceeds from an auction are going to be sucked into filling the holes."

Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the air board, said the global warming law requires "the most cost-effective solution to reducing emissions," and that her agency would "run the numbers" on various systems, including cap and trade and fees. "This problem is too big and complicated to rule any technique off the table."

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margot.roosevelt@latimes.com

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