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California's bid to curb global warming could soon get back on track

California air regulators must conduct a new environmental review before a judge will green-light its cap-and-trade pollution program, attorneys say. A final order is expected in about a week.

March 23, 2011|By Margot Roosevelt, Los Angeles Times

California's effort to curb global warming, which was put on hold by a court decision, will be able to proceed on schedule once officials conduct a new environmental review, according to attorneys analyzing the case.

A San Francisco Superior Court judge ruled that the California Air Resources Board failed to properly evaluate alternatives to the so-called cap-and-trade program, which would allow industries to purchase pollution allowances rather than cut their own carbon emissions.

The court said that measures such as a carbon tax or direct regulation of greenhouse gases were not given enough consideration.

Air board officials said Tuesday that they would meet with environmentalists who filed the lawsuit in an effort to narrow the scope of the court injunction, which is expected to be issued in about a week.

"We hope the judge's final order will be focused only on the cap-and-trade dispute," said air board spokesman Stanley Young." We will oppose a broadly written writ."

The air board also plans to appeal the decision, but an appeal could take longer than preparing a new environmental assessment. The cap-and-trade program was scheduled to take effect in January 2012.

"This is a temporary stumble," said Ann Carlson, a UCLA environmental law professor. "The court decision doesn't tell the air board it must adopt a carbon tax — only that it must analyze a tax as a potential alternative."

The judge's decision criticized the air board for giving short shrift to a carbon fee or tax, devoting a "scant two paragraphs to this important alternative" to a market-based trading system in its December 2008 plan. And it said the board had failed to consider public comments on its broad greenhouse gas plan before its adoption.

The cap-and-trade program, which covers 600 of the state's biggest industrial facilities, is a centerpiece of the state's first-in-the-nation effort to curb heat-trapping pollution that has begun to alter Earth's climate.

But the climate plan, which sought to slash the state's greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, also includes other measures such as controlling the tailpipe emissions of cars and trucks, cutting the level of carbon in gasoline and controlling potent gases such as refrigerants.

Implementation of all those measures was halted by the court decision.

The six environmental groups that brought the court case would not agree to narrow the scope of the court order, said Adrienne Bloch, an attorney for Communities for a Better Environment, a group that has battled air pollution around the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. "We think if the air board does the proper analysis, it will find that cap-and-trade is not the best option," Bloch said.

The groups, which mainly represent low-income communities, contend that a cap-and-trade program would allow refineries, power plants and other big facilities in poor neighborhoods to avoid cutting emissions of both greenhouse gases and other air pollutants.

The air board strongly disagreed. "Claims of environmental harm from a program of tradable allowances for greenhouse gases are unfounded," the board said in a statement on the judge's decision.

The potential setback in California, the first state to enact a broad global warming law, comes amid heightened nationwide controversy over cap-and-trade, a system used in Europe to curb carbon emissions.

A cap-and-trade bill was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives in 2009 but was rejected by the Senate after intense opposition from the coal and oil industries. With the election of more business-friendly lawmakers in November, the measure is considered dead in the short term.

In the November election, however, Californians voted down an oil-refinery-sponsored ballot initiative to delay the state's global warming law, which is touted as a way to spur California's fast-growing renewable energy industry.

The Environmental Defense Fund, the Nature Conservancy, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other green groups have backed a cap-and-trade approach and did not join the lawsuit. "This is a small bump in the road," said Natural Resources Defense Council attorney David Pettit.

margot.roosevelt@latimes.com

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