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Central Valley air advisers resign over pollution program

A street view of downtown Fresno with smoggy skies.
Joe Moore
Valley Public Radio
Smog partially obscures the old Security Bank building in downtown Fresno.

Three members of an advisory group tasked with helping the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District reform a flawed pollution credit program resigned Thursday, saying not enough was being done to right past harms to public health.

“We can no longer be party to a sham process that gives the appearance of addressing systemic problems while sidestepping accountability, sweeping historical failures under the rug, and focusing only on how to generate more credits within a broken system," they wrote in a resignation letter.

The district oversees air quality and pollution in an eight-county region in the Central Valley, a hub for oil and gas drilling that has some of the worst air quality in the nation. The district is responsible for monitoring and reducing pollutants from stationary sources of emissions, like refineries and other industrial facilities.

The air pollution control district runs an emission reduction credit program that aims to offset pollution emission increases that can harm public health. If a business shuts down a polluting facility, it can get credit for resulting emissions reductions. Those credits can later be used to offset any emission increases from new facilities.

After the California Air Resources Board issued a 2020 report highlighting problems with the air district's credit program, officials created a nine-member advisory group to provide oversight, get public comment and suggest changes. The three members who resigned represented community organizations: Catherine Garoupa White, executive director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition; Sasan Saadat, senior research and policy analyst for Earthjustice; and Jesus Alonso, an oil and gas organizer with Clean Water Action.

Other workgroup members who remain on the panel represent the Western States Petroleum Association, E&J Gallo Winery, the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association and the Western Agricultural Processors Association, the Education & Agriculture Together Foundation, the Independent Oil Producers' Agency and the city of Riverbank.

The California Air Resources Board’s review found the credit program broadly lacked transparency and rigorous analysis, among other issues. It reviewed just a small portion of the total credits in the program, but found in several cases there was not enough documentation to back up the claims made about emissions reductions from closing down a sugar manufacturing facility, floating roof crude oil production tanks, and a steel storage system manufacturing facility.

The state also found that the district was issuing credits for very old programs that other regulations had already addressed.

“More pollution was emitted than they were estimating, so public heath is worse off now,” Garoupa White said. “And this is the agency that we’re entrusting to keep track of all this for us.”

Jaime Holt, chief communications officer for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, said the air district has changed part of its offset process to directly follow federal guidelines for certain pollutants. The district is also in the process of amending the requirements that new pollution sources must meet to be approved for construction. The district’s regulatory programs have significantly reduced the emissions of ozone and nitrogen oxide gases.

Garoupa White, though, said the district can't just focus on changing the program for the future. Instead, it must figure out how to mitigate past emissions that were wrongly allowed under the flawed program.

She and the other members who resigned said the district had a history of “subsidizing the oil industry and obstructing or delaying best practices” at “a severe cost to public health and local economies.” They urged the air district to conduct a comprehensive review of all the credits available for six major pollutants, to remove credits that are no longer valid, and to require more direct pollution reductions.