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Calif. Climate Law Could Help Poor, Minority Areas

California's attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can have additional benefits for poor and minority communities long plagued by dirty air if state regulators take their needs into account, according to a report released Wednesday.

The findings by professors at three California universities found that oil refineries, power plants and cement kilns, which are among the state's most prolific emitters of greenhouse gases, also release other chemicals that threaten public health.

The plants that pose the highest health risks are disproportionately located in industrial communities inhabited by the poor and people of color, the report found.

"Air pollution has often been left out of the climate conversation," said Manuel Pastor, a professor at the University of Southern California and one of four co-authors. "That's a real important local issue to people."

The report was funded by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and done by professors at the University of California, Berkeley, University of Southern California and Occidental College in Los Angeles.

It was a follow-up to one released a year ago that found poor and minority communities will suffer the greatest health and economic consequences of climate change. For example, they are more vulnerable to extreme weather such as heat waves and will suffer more from rising costs of energy and fuel.

The report released this week examined in part the benefits of reducing greenhouse gases and what the authors called co-pollutants, or other emissions that contribute to air pollution and medical problems.

California's 2006 global warming law, which has been championed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and used as a template for national reforms, requires the state to cut emissions by 15 percent from current levels by 2020.

Oil refineries are among the biggest emitters, including those outside Los Angeles owned by Tesoro Companies and Valero Services Inc. Both companies are funding a proposed ballot initiative that would suspend the law.

Some industries and politicians say the law will burden businesses with excessive costs and lead to job losses.

Shelly Sullivan, executive director of the business-backed AB 32 Implementation Group, said the climate law would burden Californians by escalating costs of electricity, natural gas and gasoline. The group represents the California Chamber of Commerce, California Manufacturers & Technology Association and other businesses critical of the state's climate regulations.

"These are regressive costs which will disproportionately impact low income families," Sullivan said in an e-mail response to the report.

State regulators charged with implementing it are considering imposing a market mechanism that would allow 600 of the state's largest greenhouse gas polluters to buy, sell and trade carbon credits.

The idea behind a market is to give industry and electricity providers more flexibility and lower their costs. For example, plants that have a difficult time reducing their emissions could buy credits from plants that can - essentially allowing them to pay a fee to continue current operations.

But the law also requires state regulators to take into account other air pollutants such as smog-forming ozone and soot-forming particulate matter, which can become embedded in lung tissue and is linked to respiratory problems, heart attacks and lung cancer.

How state regulators design a carbon market to reach California's climate goals will be especially important to low-income and minority communities because they are disproportionately located in industrial areas, the study said.

For example, if oil refineries are allowed to buy carbon permits to avoid cutting emissions, there will few health benefits to the areas that need it most, the authors found. The same would be true if a cement plant paid money to plant trees in a forest hundreds of miles away as a way to continue current emission levels - a scenario envisioned by state regulators.

"Some polluters may maintain or increase their emissions, creating localized dirty-air hotspots even if there are regional greenhouse gas reductions overall," the authors wrote.

The report suggests California could cut harmful pollutants along with greenhouse gas emissions by doing one of the following:

  • Require the plants that release the most greenhouse gases and other pollutants to cut their carbon emissions at that location.

  • Limit trading of so-called carbon credits within certain dirty-air zones and neighborhoods.

  • Impose a higher price for carbon credits in highly polluted neighborhoods so industries located there have more incentive to cut emissions.

  • Give neighborhoods with the dirtiest air or significant socio-economic problems a share of the money generated from carbon fees. In turn, that money could be used to reduce air pollution even further, the report says.