Air District’s New Guidelines Fall Short

The regulations would be the nation's first greenhouse gas guidelines for new construction. But they fail to consider transit impacts.

In the next few months, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District could become the first governmental entity in the nation to enact environmental guidelines for greenhouse gas emissions. The air quality district may also regulate the cumulative effects of air pollution for the first time in its history. And while both moves, if they happen, will be groundbreaking, there are serious questions as to whether they would go far enough to affect global warming or provide relief to low-income and minority residents whose life expectancy has been cut short by breathing bad air.

The new climate-change guidelines would, for example, require businesses and developers to assess the total amount of greenhouse gases produced by their projects once they’re completed. But because the guidelines apply equally throughout the Bay Area, they may do little to spur smart growth in urban areas or curb suburban sprawl. As a result, the guidelines, while sounding impressive, may have only a minimal impact on climate change.

Likewise, the new rules concerning the cumulative effects of air pollution treat all parts of the Bay Area the same, regardless of how toxic their air is today. As a result, the guidelines don’t appear to go far enough to slash air pollution in urban areas where air quality is the worst, such as West and East Oakland and parts of West Berkeley and Richmond, where residents have much higher incidences of asthma and other respiratory diseases that shorten their lives.

Moreover, the new rules would make no differentiation between relatively clean projects, such as housing, and relatively dirty industrial or commercial ones. As a result, they threaten to block new housing developments in parts of Oakland, Berkeley, and Richmond. Under the new guidelines, some new housing projects in those cities might be considered too “dirty” even if they ultimately help transform polluted areas into more livable communities. “It’s redlining,” said County Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, who represents Richmond and sits on the air resources board of directors. “It’s as if we’re saying, ‘If you live in a polluted area, we’re going to make it harder to build housing — to build a non-polluting development — that could improve your community.'” Gioia plans to push for a housing exemption to the cumulative air pollution guidelines, so that it will be easier to build new homes in urban areas.

As for the proposed greenhouse-gas standards, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, a recognized leader on climate change issues who also sits on the board of the air quality district, acknowledged in an interview that they likely won’t go far enough to generate urban development and stop suburban sprawl. Cars and trucks are the leading cause of greenhouse-gas emissions in the Bay Area, so any plan that fails to redirect people into urban areas near mass transportation will not fully address global warming. “We need infill, transit-oriented developments to happen,” Bates said.

But convincing developers to build in cities rather than in the suburbs would require a regulatory scheme that promotes smart growth. One way to do it would be to establish a tiered system that includes tougher greenhouse-gas standards for the suburbs and more relaxed ones for urban areas. Such a system would recognize that urban development creates fewer greenhouse gases by lessening the need for auto traffic. Alternatively, the air quality district’s new rules could properly account for the commute-related greenhouse gases generated by suburban development while crediting urban developments that require less commuting and promote mass transit.

But that doesn’t appear likely to happen. Bates, for example, plans to vote for the new greenhouse-gas guidelines as they’re currently proposed when they come before the board in early April. The reason is that he does not believe there are enough votes on the board to create a dual-tiered system that would make it tougher to build in the suburbs and easier in cities. “It would be very hard to pass,” he said.

The problem is the suburban influence on the board. The 24-member panel is made up of elected officials from around the nine-county Bay Area, and getting anything passed without approval from suburban politicians concerned about the economic vitality of their areas is nearly impossible.

In fact, the air district board was scheduled to vote on the greenhouse-gas and the cumulative-air-pollution guidelines at its meeting last week, but suburban representatives said they and their constituents needed more time to study the proposals and their ramifications. Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty, who represents Livermore and Fremont, was the most vocal proponent of the delay. The only board members who appeared ready to vote were progressives from urban areas and Sonoma County.

Although flawed, the new greenhouse-gas guidelines are not without merit, nor do they lack support from health and environmental groups. Andy Katz of Breathe California noted that the new rules would still make it tougher to build large suburban housing tracts. Under the guidelines, which would be incorporated in the California Environmental Quality Act, developers of suburban housing developments of more than 56 homes would be required to “mitigate” the greenhouse-gas emissions of their projects. That is, the homes would have to be more energy efficient or include solar-panel roofs, or they would have to be built closer to BART, or the developments would have to include shuttles to BART stations.

In addition, Katz, who also is a member of the East Bay Municipal Utility District board, noted that many urban housing developments will be exempt from the new greenhouse-gas guidelines once Senate Bill 375 goes into full effect in the Bay Area in 2012. The landmark smart-growth law states that small and mid-size smart-growth housing projects do not have to complete environmental impact reports under the Environmental Quality Act. That means that dense urban housing developments of fewer than 200 units built on major transit corridors won’t be subject to the air district’s new greenhouse-gas rules, thereby making it easier to build them. However, large, dense projects of more than 200 units will still be subject to the new rules, which means that the regulations could block the type of dense urban development likely to have the greatest impact on climate change.

Last week, the board did adopt new toxic-air-pollution standards for new buildings and major renovations of existing structures and businesses. The regulations are designed to reduce the cancer risks associated with breathing air pollution by 50 percent compared to the old regulations. Again, environmentalists and urban representatives on the board wanted a tiered system that would make it harder to build pollution-generating projects, like factories, in already polluted areas, such as West and East Oakland, West Berkeley, and parts of Richmond. “They’re on the frontlines; they’re already impacted,” Bates explained during last week’s air board meeting. “It seems to me that we need to find some way of addressing that.”

Bates, who is slated to become chairman of the air district’s board in 2011, asked district staff to come back with a proposal for a tiered air-pollution regulatory scheme. But suburban representatives may balk at such a proposal. At the meeting, several of them said they didn’t want to harm the fragile economies of struggling urban areas, but in truth, they’re more likely worried that if new sources of pollution can’t be built in Oakland, Richmond, and West Berkeley, they’ll end up in their jurisdictions.


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