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Silicon Valley manufacturers must reduce greenhouse gas emissions

Under new California rules, computer chip makers must slash releases of sulfur hexafluoride and other fluorinated gases by more than half.

February 27, 2009|Margot Roosevelt

California regulators Thursday adopted the world's first mandatory measures to control highly potent greenhouse gases emitted by the computer manufacturing industry.

The new rules would cover 85 plants, mostly in Silicon Valley. They require most computer chip makers to slash releases of sulfur hexafluoride and other fluorinated gases by more than half over the next three years.

The chemicals are used in small amounts but "pose a danger to the planet because they have such a high capacity to trap atmospheric heat," said Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the Air Resources Board.

The fluorinated gases are 6,500 to 23,900 times more potent than carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas emitted by automobiles, power plants and refineries, among other sources. A single pound of sulfur hexafluoride has the same heat-trapping potential as 10 metric tons of carbon dioxide, or an automobile trip around the Earth.

The move to control the global-warming impact of the high-tech industry is part of a broad plan to slash the state's greenhouse gas emissions by about 15% by 2020. California's climate plan covers nearly every sector of the economy, including automobiles, power plants and municipal landfills.

Scientists say that excessive emissions of greenhouse gases are disrupting the climate and will cause droughts, water shortages, sea-level rises and heat waves. Congress is expected to take up national legislation to control emissions this year, and President Obama has pledged to work with other nations to negotiate a new international treaty to address global warming.

"We all have a role to play in combating climate change, one of the most significant crises of our time," said Mike Mielke, a spokesman for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a partnership of industry and nonprofit groups. "We are confident Air Board will be sensitive in regards to implementation as companies everywhere are facing one of the toughest economic downturns in memory."

Not all companies were pleased.

"The financial impact is going to be severe," Gus Ballis, a spokesman for chip maker NEC Electronics America Inc., a subsidiary of NEC Electronics Corp. in Japan, told the board. The Sacramento-area facility, one of California's largest high-tech plants, will have until 2014 to comply because it is retooling.

But, Ballis warned, "We're potentially on the chopping block -- whether they are going to keep us or pull our production back to Japan."

Twenty-eight plants account for 94% of fluorinated gas emissions. Twelve already comply with the new standards. The remaining 16 would have to spend a total of $37 million to reduce their emissions, the air board said.

An additional 57 facilities release such small amounts that they would only have to meet reporting requirements.

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margot.roosevelt @latimes.com

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