Amid the apocalyptic din of the global warming debate, mitigating of the region's other air quality challenges has lost press attention. And while substantial progress has been made to fight smog and particulate pollution, regulatory challenges are arising as air quality standards become more stringent. MIR was pleased to speak with Elaine Chang, Dr. PH, Deputy Executive Officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, about the agency's draft of the 2007 AQMP, currently working its way through the approval process.
SCAQMD has referred to the region's air quality problems as an emergency. What are the most serious and most daunting air quality challenges facing the region today?
We're facing two primary problems. One is fine particulate matter, which we call PM2.5. Those are the fine particles smaller than 2.5 microns, which can be breathed in and caught in the lungs, causing health impacts. Basically, health information we see from the state Air Resources Board (CARB) states that PM2.5 air pollution causes 5,400 premature deaths each year in the Los Angeles Basin and thousands of school absences and work days lost. Followed by PM2.5 is our ozone problem, the summertime smog, which also causes health problems. We have federal deadlines for both PM2.5 and smog that present a tremendous challenge for this region to meet.
The SCAQMD recently adopted its Draft 2007 Air Quality Management Plan (AQMP), which it updates every three years. How has the AQMP process evolved, and how is the new plan different from the one three years ago?
First off, this was the first time addressing PM 2.5 and eight-hour ozone-both are new and have more health-protective standards than a few years ago, when we were only doing the one-hour ozone and PM10. So, the science is quite different in the way that we deal with much finer particles. When you look at PM10, the issue is mainly centered on dust, i.e., bigger particles. In terms of PM2.5, we're looking at by-products of fuel combustion; we're looking at nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides. So we're dealing with different pollution sources, and of course, when we shift from one-hour ozone to eight-hour ozone, there is a longer period of time where we need to keep the emissions low so we can meet the standard for an average eight-hour timeframe. Basically, the new standards are more stringent than the previous scheme of PM10 and one-hour ozone. So this is the first plan with those built in, and this is the first integrated plan in the nation dealing with both new standards.
SCAQMD recently approved plans to build 11 more power plants across the region, permitting the plants to pay $92,000 per pound of coarse particulate emissions and $34,000 per pound of sulfur oxide. Many in the environmental community have balked at this plan. What is AQMD's objective here, and what cost-benefit analysis went into formulating this offset formula?
The AQMD's action approved access to our Priority Reserve emission credits for new power plants. Emission reduction credits are needed for all new stationary sources in this region as part of the federal Clean Air Act requirements. All of the proposed power plants may not necessarily be built when they go through the California Energy Commission (CEC) licensing, and they need to have contracts from local utilities. Our ruling simply allows the access once they have gone through other regulatory processes.
We all knew that we had to have additional power supply; we would rather have the cleanest, most efficient power plants, rather than taxing our aging power plants. If you review CEC's report, you'll see that more than half of the power plants here were built 30-50 years ago, so they're less efficient. Even though we have installed retrofit control, they're still less efficient or clean than brand-new facilities. Should we have any transmission problem or have any existing plant go down, we might not have enough power to prevent a brownout or blackout, which means we have to fire up diesel generators, which is worse for the environment. So in this scenario, we believe in relying on other agencies to perform their due diligence to approve energy resources: energy conservation, renewables, or fossil-fuel power plants. Then, between the CEC and the PUC, we believe our region will be protected. If we need to build a new fossil-fuel power plant, they will have access to our credit bank, and they can be built.
In the meantime, the AQMD board is also looking into alternative energy sources such as renewables as part of the adoption resolution. The board set aside $1 million to study how we can best facilitate the building of renewables in this region.
What renewables interest SCAQMD, given the region's mandate to diversify our energy mix?
We've realized that renewables, solar or wind, would be the best. There's a limitation because of reliability. We are also looking at fuel cell technology and promoting demand-side management. When it comes to fossil-fuel power plants, the efficiency is what we'll be looking at. For example, a combined-cycle power plant is more efficient than a simple-cycle plant. We have already incorporated energy efficiency concepts into the most recent rule adoption. We went beyond our traditional emissions concentration; we established efficiency standards, as well.
SCAQMD requires the approval of CARB for the AQMP, and the governor ordered CARB to work with SCAQMD to focus on a plan for greater emissions reductions. What have been the results of this partnership, and is the AQMP plan ready to be sent to the U.S. EPA?
With Mary Nichols' appointment to the CARB board, staffs from both agencies have been directed to go back and look for additional reductions, and we are cooperating toward a solution. The AQMP is going before the state board in September, and we hope that we can resolve the discrepancies with enough reductions to close the gap and be ready to send it to the EPA shortly after September.
Senator Barbara Boxer has called for a field hearing on the state of air quality in the region. Where does the federal government fit into the region's air quality mitigation plans, both in theory and in practice?
The federal government has certain categories that they have the primary responsibility for, such as ocean vessels, locomotives, and aircraft, and we are looking to them to do the right thing. Senator Boxer sponsored a bill to regulate marine fuel-to lower the sulfur content, for which she has been an absolute leader in terms of trying to establish a strategy here by 2014.
We're also currently working with the U.S. EPA staff regarding new and re-manufactured diesel engine standards for locomotives. In theory, we can't assign emission reduction responsibility to them directly. In practice, we work with them, present to them our problems, and try to make them a willing partner in solving our air quality problem. I think they do recognize our issues, and sometimes the challenge is that they're looking at the standard for the entire nation. It is difficult for them to have California's air quality needs drive that standard. There's some recognition with the U.S. EPA staff that there is a need to have region-specific requirements, such as having the standard earlier here than the rest of the nation to meet the attainment deadlines.
What would a hypothetical, perfect convergence of public authorities to solve air quality issues in Southern California look like? From the federal, to the state, to the regional and local levels, how do you get everyone on the same page regarding air quality?
That would solve half of the problem. If you're looking at air quality, you look at pollution sources. If you really step back and look at the region as a whole, our goods movement and transportation systems have to be in the forefront. We need all levels of government to come together to plan the future for Southern California: What kind of transportation systems and goods movement systems do we want to have? We need to make long-term investments today and send our region on the right path. It takes time to build infrastructure, and we need it not only for the local economy, but also for our environment.
Furthermore, now we're not just talking about regional pollutants; we're also talking about greenhouse gases. It adds another layer of environmental challenges that we'll need to deal with holistically.
Are there regions around the world that SCAQMD looks to as a model for metropolitan air quality regulation?
Oftentimes we do look to European countries for their technology. For some reason, their technology-especially for locomotives, their retrofit technology, and their diesel fuel sulfur content-is more advanced than here. So we do keep an eye on the international market to see technology advancements that we can follow.