Air Quality Arsenal: Stockpiling Strategies across Sectors

Martinez Refinery for webThis summer, Bay Area residents will have the chance to weigh in on policies that could shape the battle against climate change. How? The Bay Area Air Quality Management District is updating its Clean Air Plan, and will soon release a draft for public comment.

These state-mandated plans have historically targeted ozone, but the last version, adopted in 2010, also took aim at particulate matter, local air toxics, and greenhouse gases. Abby Young, a climate protection manager with the agency, called it a “groundbreaker,” remarking, “at the time we did it, a multipollutant plan was a very new concept.” So new, in fact, that “I don’t believe any other plan — even nationally — looked at the suite of pollutants our plan looked at,” she recounted.

However, of the plan’s 55 measures, only four were greenhouse gas-specific. Although many other measures reduced greenhouse gases as an added effect, observers both in and around the Air District saw room to strengthen the climate protection component of the plan. For years, the agency had been offering grant funding and technical advice to municipalities attempting to address climate change in their own planning efforts. Ramping up that aspect of its own plan made sense, so in November of 2013 the Air District’s board of directors adopted a resolution to do just that.

When the time came to begin updating the 2010 plan, Air District staff reached out to local government officials and staff, explaining the new approach and soliciting input. They also convened outside experts, sharing emissions data and other climate change information, while continuing to discuss how to accomplish goals regarding ozone, particulate matter, and local air toxics.

The external and internal brainstorming and winnowing created an extensive list. Although Young called it “our short list,” the resulting table includes 83 draft control measures grouped into nine sectors (stationary sources; transportation; buildings; energy; agriculture; natural and working lands; waste; water; and short-lived climate pollutants). These were distilled into fact sheets for each sector, with relevant graphs of emissions, a proposed overall approach, and specific action items. The fact sheets were distributed online and at a series of public open houses held this past February, while the agency’s new online Open Air Forum also gathered comments.

GHG by Sector
The 2016 Clean Air Plan focuses on nine sectors of the economy. The pie graph above shows what percentage of greenhouse gas emissions eight of those sectors contribute to the Bay Area’s total. The ninth, natural and working lands, is unique in its capacity to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Source: Bay Area Air Quality Management District fact sheets.

At first glance, the draft control measures may seem very ambitious. “We’re using all feasible measures” to create the new strategy, Young said. These range from very short-term rulemaking to actions looking out to 2050 or beyond, and they cover refinery emissions reductions, increased electric vehicle use, Plan Bay Area transportation measures, and carbon sequestration on rangelands, to name just a few.

“The initial list looks amazing,” said Jed Holtzman, a coordinator with the environmental organization 350 Bay Area. “We will fight for all of this,” he declared, describing the plan as “taking a look at the economy through a sectorial lens, getting down to a greater level of granularity — not just command and control legislation.”

Holtzman’s enthusiasm for the updated plan shows stark contrast with his opinion of the 2010 version. “We thought the Air District was massively asleep on the job,” he lamented, pointing out that “this is a regional agency which has the primary authority to regulate sources of air pollution, including greenhouse gases.” He credited community activism for compelling the Air District to more fully exert that authority in the new plan.

Of course, as any government regulator can attest, agencies like the Air District constantly receive just as much pressure to pull back their authority. Debates over this issue are sure to continue playing out among diverse stakeholders as the plan heads toward adoption in the fall.

As part of that public conversation, this past April the Air District held four working groups, each covering one or more sectors of the plan. Participants included experts involved in the original sector discussions, local government staff members, public health professionals, community organizations, business interests, and environmental advocates.

Draft control measures were the starting point, but participants also made suggestions on prioritizing implementation and addressing other policy issues. For example, Michael Kent, Hazardous Materials Ombudsman for Contra Costa County, expressed concern over health equity. “As they decide which measures to implement, they should be looking at it from the health equity perspective,” he said. “When do the CARE [Community Air Risk Evaluation] areas come into play? Do you support BART or buses? Those have different demographics.”

Young is aware that prioritization and efficiency will be key to managing the wide variety of actions. “Some areas may seem like they’re on the periphery,” she said, but there will be partnerships and other collaborative ways to approach those. She suggested that the Air District role will be “using our strengths” — for example, providing data — to add to efforts by others.

The shift in plan structure reflects a shift in the agency itself. Staff from different disciplines will work together in a newly organized climate protection team, collaborating on research, air-monitoring, and rulemaking. The new structure will allow an integrated approach to evaluating control measures, looking at regulations and incentives through different lenses, and focusing on co-benefits.

Kent supports this approach. “A lot of measures have benefits both for criteria pollutants and for greenhouse gases, but not equally for both,” he said. “An economic analysis may show that a measure which is not cost-effective for one aspect is actually quite reasonable when both are considered together. It’s the overlap that makes it worth considering.”

The new cross-pollination within the Air District will extend outside as well. For example, a new monitoring station and a new mobile van will contribute valuable greenhouse gas emissions data not only for the agency, but also for research entities like UC Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, and the Climate Readiness Institute.

Some stakeholders hope the Air District will create model plans that can be adopted by other jurisdictions, perhaps even other air districts still struggling to achieve attainment with state and federal regulations. As Holtzman put it, “We are doing work not just for the Bay Area, but for a lot of urban areas.”

Leslie Stewart covers air quality and energy for the Monitor.