How do you build 11 new gas-fired power plants in Southern California when you already exceed federal standards for unhealthful air? Under the U.S. Clean Air Act, the local governments that make up the South Coast Air Quality Management District can allow more pollution in one place only if they reduce soot and cancer-causing airborne particles somewhere else in the same region through a complex system of pollution credits, also known as offsets.
Given how dirty the air is, such pollution credits are scarce and expensive--which is why the AQMD, years ago, set some aside for such public projects as hospitals and police stations. Then, last year, it voted to sell these "Priority Reserve" credits to power plant developers at about half their market value.
Not so fast, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled today.
In a lawsuit brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council, California Communities Against Toxics and other groups, Judge Ann I. Jones told the air quality district in a 32-page decision that it could not subsidize the plants until it fully reported on the environmental impact under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
Community activists rejoiced, saying that the decision delays for at least one to two years the construction of power plants that had been proposed for Vernon, Grand Terrace and other largely poor and minority parts of the Los Angeles and Mojave air districts. "It is the air district's job to clean up the air in places like Southeast L.A.," said Darryl Molina, an organizer at Communities for a Better Environment. "The court understands: Creating new pollution credits meant that new power plants like Vernon's will make the air dirtier for people in low-income communities of color."
Angela Johnson Meszaros, an attorney for California Communities Against Toxics, a group of 70 local organizations, said, "This case is about the district trying to change its rules to help fossil fuel energy developers. As if that's not bad enough, the district insisted that it didn't need to undertake environmental review before changing its rules."
LA Times, July 29, 2009.
But Barry Wallerstein, AQMD's executive officer, said the decision "could make it extremely difficult to build new, low-emission power plants needed in California. Ultimately this could lead to power brownouts or blackouts, which, in turn, could greatly affect public health and safety, as seen during the state's 2000-01 power crisis."
Will the decision mean fewer electricity plants for the state's burgeoning population? Not necessarily, said V. John White of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies. "It will require South Coast to look at alternatives to more fossil fuel plants, which they failed to do in granting these blanket waivers from air quality protections. Hopefully, this will lead to more focus on energy efficiency and solar power." Dozens of new solar and wind plants have been proposed for Southern California, and to meet the state's goals to reduce greenhouse gases, utilities must get a third of their energy from renewable resources, according to the state Air Resources Board.