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Fresno still ‘ground zero’ for terrible air. Why did Valley Air District blow off major hearing?

They came to Fresno from all over California and the West to make their voices heard in the struggle for clean air.

Air quality officials, politicians, doctors, activists, ordinary citizens — they all turned out for a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency public hearing to speak out against the Trump Administration’s proposed weakening of vehicle emissions regulations. Representatives of the auto industry gave the opposing view.

The Sept. 24 hearing in downtown Fresno was one of three held that week across the nation. Why Fresno? Because, in the words of California Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols, the San Joaquin Valley is “ground zero for the most stubbornly persistent violations of air standards.”

Yes, that’s the air we breathe every day.

The hearing lasted 12 hours. More than 125 people signed up to speak. Colleague Barbara Anderson procured a list, and I scanned the names looking for someone from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. You know, the folks who, according to their home page, are “committed to improving the health and quality of life for all Valley residents.”

But guess what? I couldn’t find Executive Director Samir Sheikh, or anyone else. A public hearing over a rollback of vehicle emissions standards was held in Fresno, and no one from the Valley Air District deemed it important enough to attend.

Don’t you find that a bit odd? I do.

Wayne Nastri’s name was on the list of speakers. Nastri is executive director of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, where the air is sometimes even dirtier than ours. His office is in Diamond Bar, 245 miles away, but still took the time and made the effort to get to Fresno.

So I called to find out why.

“Because we think this rollback would have a strong adverse effect on our ability to clean the air here in Southern California,” SCAQMD spokesman Sam Atwood said. “He’ll travel anywhere he feels is needed to get that message across loud and clear.”

Jack Broadbent, air pollution control officer for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, came from San Francisco to speak. Why did he feel it was important?

“The stakes are incredibly high,” replied Kristine Roselius, BAAQMD spokesperson. “A rollback of the standards would pump additional pollution into our community and obstruct our agency from carrying out its mission to protect Bay Area residents from air pollution.”

“It was very important that our voice be heard,” Roselius added.

Of course I contacted the Valley Air District, whose office is in central Fresno, to find out why no one from the bureaucracy entrusted with improving our health didn’t raise its voice, on our behalf.

Days passed and I received no reply from Sheikh. Eventually, spokeswoman Jaime Holt emailed back to say Sheikh was “not available this week” and that we might be able to speak Tuesday “but I will need to double check.”

As for the question of why no one from the Valley Air District attended the EPA hearings, Holt said, “We didn’t have top-level staff available to attend and submitted written comments.”

Sorry, but that’s not good enough. The executive director of the Valley Air District earns more than $300,000 in annual salary. With benefits, his pay exceeds $400,000. A good chunk is taxpayer money.

Surely, Sheikh could have found the time for such an important hearing, one held in his backyard. If not, he could have designated someone else. The air district website lists more than 100 employees.

To be fair, I read the comments Sheikh submitted. (The language is so dense it took me a couple passes.) In essence, Sheikh seems to be saying, “We can’t meet the Clean Air Act as is, and mobile pollutants caused by vehicle emissions are state and federal responsibilities, not ours.”

One explanation for the absence could be that Valley Air District officials, as guided by the governing board, are quietly pleased at President Trump’s efforts to weaken our environmental laws, even if that means dirtier air for you and I. Why? Because the end result would take the heat off them.

Such is the contention of local environmental activist Kevin Hall.

“The last thing they’re going to do is send (Sheikh) into an EPA hearing and object to a rollback of regulations when that’s just what they’re looking for themselves,” Hall said. “They want to remove deadlines and penalties for air districts like ours that continue to fail. In other words, they want to legalize their 28 years of a failed process.”

I’m not going to double down on Hall’s comments, but it does make you think.

It is curious that the Valley Air District’s own legislative platform seeks to amend the Clean Air Act. The district’s critics would substitute the word “weaken.” Officials prefer “streamline” and “simplify.”

But that’s a subject for another day. For now, let’s leave it here: Fresno hosted a major EPA hearing on vehicle emissions, one of three held across the nation, and our local air officials no-showed.

Which is definitely a bit odd.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee

 

Fresno still ‘ground zero’ for terrible air. Why did Valley Air District blow off major hearing?, by Marek Warszawski, The Fresno Bee, October 8, 2018.

Fresno sits at the crossroads of California’s climate-change policies

Thousands of delegates from around the world gather in San Francisco this week for the Global Climate Action Summit. Committed to achieving the Paris Climate Accord’s goal of net zero emissions by midcentury, the international effort is humankind’s attempt to save itself from itself.

For a quick glimpse at their prospects, delegates should come to Fresno. Our city is at the crossroads of California’s climate change policies, in the heart of a valley that has been trying unsuccessfully for nearly three decades to reduce ground-level air pollution to safe levels.

The two efforts share a common feature: cap-and-trade, the market-based system designed to reduce air pollution through the buying and selling of pollution credits like commodities. It’s a trading system structured to ensure economic stability, and it does lead to less air pollution … only very, very slowly.

San Joaquin Valley residents have been waiting 28 years and the end is not in sight. How long does the planet have?

For greenhouse gases, California sets a good example. Our efforts to decarbonize are underway, and a long list of courageous state legislators have taken turns leading the effort.

Governors from Gray Davis to Jerry Brown and laws ranging from former state senator Fran Pavley’s 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act to this year’s 100 percent Clean Energy bill authored by Sen. Kevin de León have placed the state on the right path.

These policies are still evolving and improving. That’s to be expected given this is the largest undertaking in California – in human – history and that policymakers face almost unanimous resistance from fossil fuel, industrial, and agricultural interests.

Despite cap-and-trade’s industry friendly approach, for decades lobbyists for these sectors have worked to delay or block every air pollution rule and regulation. From cars’ carbon monoxide and diesel trucks’ toxic fumes to ammonia from dairies and methane from oil fields, we continue to inhale a long list of hazardous pollutants. Countless lives have been damaged or lost.

The response to greenhouse gases has been no different. The stakes are just so much higher now, and we’re quickly running out of time.

Local politicians have proven especially disappointing on this front. In recent years statehouse representatives Michael Rubio and Henry T. Perea, both Democrats, left office early to end up as oil industry lobbyists, and the Fresno City Council has been voting unanimously to ignore state laws requiring industrial developments assess and mitigate ground level air pollution and greenhouse gases.

Most impacted are the residents of Malaga, Calwa, Daleville, La Vina, Lanare, and a long list of other vulnerable communities.

These families already bear the brunt of industrial and agricultural air pollution, water contamination, and toxic emissions, but climate investments in high speed rail, dairy digesters, biomass plants, and more are resulting in even greater impacts.

Take high speed rail. Making and pouring concrete is one of the most greenhouse gas-intensive activities there is, and the greenest buildings are the ones already built. So due to HSR’s many years of construction and demolition, it will be decades before the greenhouse gases emitted now might possibly be offset by reduced passenger vehicle emissions.

Meanwhile, people living alongside the construction route throughout Fresno are inundated with dust and diesel when what they need are basic, electrified transit services which, importantly, would immediately reduce greenhouse gases and criteria pollutants alike.

Even worse impacts are being caused by the state’s headlong rush into biofuels of every type. Dairies are being subsidized to produce methane rather than avoid it. Wood is being ground, hauled, and burned in highly polluting biomass plants rather than being incorporated into soils, spread on dusty roads, or kept in solid form. Again, residents of vulnerable neighborhoods are being assaulted by increased pollution.

Our best hope is for the California delegation to return home from San Francisco – with a side trip through Fresno – with a newfound sense of urgency and commitment to funding a just transition. One that protects life rather than imperils it, prioritizes local jobs in clean energy, and results in a stable atmosphere as soon as humanly possible.

Kevin Hall has lived in Fresno since 1971, where he works as an air quality advocate and community organizer.

 

Fresno sits at the crossroads of California’s climate-change policies, by Kevin Hall, The Fresno Bee, September 10, 2018.

Faith in the Valley: Faith Community Asserts Support for Energy Democracy

I attended the Faith in the Valley: Power Faith Community Forum at the Fresno Convention Center on Saturday, September 10th. Nearly 2,000 participants, including Fresno mayoral Candidate Henry Perea and numerous congregations from throughout the San Joaquin Valley, gathered for an afternoon session dedicated to three issues our community faces: environmental, racial, and economic. Faith and community leaders presented ideas that were then discussed in breakout sessions by attendees at their table.

Speakers asserted that we must stop accepting the unhealthy air and toxic water that have become a way of life for so many San Joaquin Valley residents. Event organizer Thomas Weiler said, “We hope to encourage utility companies and our Valley’s leadership to invest in clean energy projects…that both provide sustaining jobs for low-income families and tangible benefits to families who have otherwise been excluded from seeing any benefits from the ‘green’ economy.” One proposed solution written in the program was to “create thousands of local living wage jobs through investments in energy efficiency and community solar projects, while exploring Community Choice Energy amongst other vehicles.”

I distributed information about Community Choice Energy (CCE) being promoted by our Clean Power Exchange program. Various attendees talked with me about Community Choice – how it provides electricity from clean energy sources via a not-for-profit public entity, and how it could benefit the Valley from both an environmental and economic standpoint. As several areas utilizing CCE in the Bay Area like Sonoma County with Sonoma Clean Power and Lancaster with Lancaster Choice Energy have proven, CCE provides lower rates to utility users compared to what the big utility offers, meaning more revenue is invested back into our economy.

Utilizing clean energy sources to power our electricity will reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, reduce the need for fracking that contaminates groundwater, and offset the particulate air pollution our Valley residents breathe in on a daily basis. “Faith in the Valley community leaders have been excited to learn that voters and ratepayers have more opportunity than ever before to negotiate for these concrete, life-saving changes through Community Choice Energy,” Weiler stated.

Events such as the Faith Forum are a powerful way to spread news about the benefits of Community Choice Energy and other programs; people seemed very excited by these solutions and the prospect of a better future for the Central Valley. Perhaps the biggest point raised during the event was that if we all stand together, we can make these visions a reality. Community Choice Energy is a prime example of how we can address our global climate crisis in a meaningful way at the local level. If events like these are any indication, Valley residents are ready for this.

Program cover for Faith In The Valley Forum.

Program cover for Faith In The Valley Forum.

Faith in the Valley: Faith Community Asserts Support for Energy Democracy, by Erik Cherkaski, Clean Power Exchange, September 29, 2016.

A Hot Issue: Fresno’s Getting Warmer …But We Could Change That.

July marks the first full month of summer. Here in Fresno, the seventh month of the year is the peak of the area’s grueling high temperatures during the season. This summer presented Fresno’s unyielding heat waves slightly earlier than normal, and will continue on until early fall. Just a few days after the summer started, Fresno experienced a record-breaking heatwave. Whereas normal days in the beginning of the season hover around the mid-nineties, parts of Fresno County hit highs closer to 110 degrees, forcing some communities to open cooling centers during the day. It should come as no surprise that the National Weather Service encourages people to stay indoors during hours of blistering temperature highs.

When the summer heat becomes unbearable, people rely on their homes to keep cool. Utility customer’s consumption of electricity goes up during summer months, particularly in areas with significant heat. Such a high demand during these periods not only raises electricity rates but also increases fossil fuel consumption used to produce the electricity, and the use of fossil fuels has a direct link to rising global temperatures.

Climate Change continues to impact the San Joaquin Valley with temperatures steadily rising over the past decades. Studies show an average of 1°C increase during the first half of the century and then a 2°C increase by the second half, combined with a significant decrease in precipitation. One particular concern is the increase of the temperature of daily low temperatures. The Central Valley is noted for experiencing a wide range of high and low temperatures throughout a 24-hour period. But according to studies, this phenomenon is declining as Valley morning and nightly low temperatures are beginning to rise, marking longer stretches of intense heat during summer months. Such elongated temperature highs during the day contribute to rising use of energy consumption throughout a 24-hour period in the season of sunshine. An additional concern about higher than normal overnight temperatures is that many fruit and nut trees grown in the Central Valley require a certain number of “chill hours” in order to produce a crop.

Although California’s investor owned utilities (IOUs) have made promises to expand usage of clean energy, fossil fuels are still a large source in generating power for homes and businesses. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the country generated four trillion kilowatt hours of electricity in 2015. Close to 67% of that electricity came from fossil fuel sources (coal, natural gas and petroleum) while only 13% came from cleaner, renewable sources such as hydropower, solar and wind. According to the IOUs maintaining the grid and expanding the use of renewable energy comes at an ever-increasing price. This month, the California Public Utilities Commission held public hearings in several Central Valley cities to discuss the area’s utility provider rate increase, with the company arguing it is needed for further investment in grid maintenance and clean energy sources.

So, Fresno and its surrounding areas get very hot during the summer, heat waves seem to be getting more intense due to climate change, and the direct culprit behind climate change, fossil energy, is still a major source for powering our electricity to cool us down: sounds like one vicious cycle, right?

Well, first, let’s take a look at that IOU claim that renewable energy costs more. The fact is that solar and wind power prices have dropped dramatically over the past six years. So much so that solar and wind are now at or near “grid parity” in many markets meaning that they are equivalent or lower in cost than conventional power sources. But who will take advantage of this fact and pursue this cleaner, cheaper power on our community’s behalf?

One answer is Community Choice Energy. Community Choice Energy is a program, enabled by state law passed in 2002, that has the power to buy, and may even generate, electricity for its residents and businesses via a not-for-profit public entity; created by the people, for the people. The program offers several economic and environmental benefits such as providing consumer choice, competition in the monopolized utility market, offering lower rates, strengthening the local economy, and utilizing alternative energy sources. The four existing Community Choice agencies in California have proven the concept. Perhaps, more than ever, now is the time to explore a program that emphasizes cleaner, renewable energy sources for its residents at competitive rates. After all, it certainly isn’t getting any cooler over here.

July temperatures in Fresno this year have hit the triple digits on multiple occasions.

July temperatures in Fresno this year have hit the triple digits on multiple occasions.

Report: Fresno is No. 1 for Industrial Solar Power in California