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October 31, 2014

Our clean energy potential is in the air

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94. That's the number of days this year the air was unsafe to breathe in Southern California because of smog. And it's up from last year, when the number was 88. Over the decades we’ve made progress towards cleaning up the nation's dirtiest, smoggiest air basin, but fossil fuels and air pollution still place a heavy burden on families across the region.

The toll of this pollution is immense. Every year, local kids miss more than 1.1 million days of school due to dirty air and Southern Californians suffer from more than 120,000 asthma attacks. Even worse, over 5,000 people die prematurely every year due to air pollution. And this problem does not affect us equally in Southern California. African American and Latino children are two to six times more likely to die from asthma than whites, and the people most vulnerable to smog are children and the elderly.

Our pollution problem is not only affecting the health of people, it is also hurting our economy. In Southern California, pollution costs each of us $1,250 every year. While burning fossil fuels puts a hole in our pocket books, it hurts the economy more broadly too. Workers miss 400,000 days of work every year due to air pollution, and in total air pollution costs the region's economy $22 billion annually.

It has been over 40 years since the Clean Air Act was created, so why is our air is still unsafe to breathe? Here's the gist: Under the Clean Air Act, through the creation of State Implementation Plans (basically, an air pollution reduction plan), states must demonstrate progress towards meeting the health based standards that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets for pollutants like nitrogen oxide (NOx), the precursor to smog pollution. By law, the EPA must review and later approve these plans to ensure it is effective and done in a timely manner.

However, because of a "polluter loophole" in Clean Air Act, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) can submit partially finished pollution reduction plans that only take us part way to protecting public health. This loophole was written back during the 1990 amendments when clean alternatives like solar and electric vehicles were less viable. That's no longer the case. Through this loophole, polluters can say our air is cleaner while ignoring the fact that burning fossil fuels like oil and gas still present a public health nightmare for all of us living in Southern California

The result has led to a decades-long failure to make significant progress on controlling smog. On August 13, 2014, the EPA once again approved SCAQMD's plan that fails to detail how they will protect us from smog pollution. In fact, the SCAQMD projects that we won’t meet these air standards until 2032. That means millions of lives lost, hundreds of thousands of asthma and heart attacks, and billions of dollars down the drain.

The EPA has a responsibility to hold our region’s air regulators accountable for reducing harmful smog pollution, but they haven't for decades. And so, the Sierra Club and our partners are taking action. Today, EarthJustice, Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, Sierra Club, and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) filed a lawsuit against the EPA for approving inadequate pollution reduction plans from the SCAQMD. We need a better strategy to cut pollution, and if we are successful, the court will reject this inadequate plan.

Taking advantage of this polluter loophole enables the region to continue delaying the transition to clean energy. In a year when dirty air days are increasing, regulators are considering more dirty gas power plants despite clean energy being available and more than capable of doing the job. We are expanding freeways and not investing enough in getting cars off the road through public transportation.

So, where do we go from here? The SCAQMD must develop a plan that cleans our air and protects public health. By 2023, achieving the science-based clean air standards requires a 75 percent reduction in smog producing pollutants, like nitrogen oxides. By 2032, by 90 percent. In short, we have to transition a 100 percent clean energy economy.  

This is an amazing opportunity. Right now, California leads the nation in rooftop solar and in clean energy more generally. This has resulted in the creation of thousands of jobs all throughout the value chain and has helped keep California's economy strong during economic hardship elsewhere. In fact, more than 47,000 Californians work in the solar industry, which is more than the combined workforce of the four largest utilities in the state.

A strong plan from the air district has the potential to transform our economy, bringing much needed clean energy jobs to towns like mine in Fontana. As Fontana's economy recovers, putting solar panels on our homes is helping families save money on their energy bills while creating jobs in our neighborhood. If we could continue this trend while also building up a clean vehicle infrastructure, we can create jobs, restore our economy, and protect our kids and friends from getting sick.

Our air is bad. It is killing people, making them sick, and hurting our economy. But there is a silver lining here. As bad as our air is, our clean energy potential is greater. We can turn our region from number one in the nation for bad air to the world’s leader in clean energy. And we need our regulators to see it.

-- Allen Hernandez, community organizer in Fontana, California

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