Environmentalists wary of plant pollution rules

The Associated Press
Wednesday June 13, 2001

SACRAMENTO — California environmentalists, critical of newly relaxed air pollution rules for power plants, say air quality and public health are taking a back seat to “keeping the lights on.” 

Environmental defenders say a state with the nation’s worst air pollution is taking a big step into reverse. 

“It’s just another in a long list of instances where we’re seeing the normal rules and regulations pushed out of the way for the energy crisis,” said Sandy Spelliscy, general counsel of the California Planning and Conservation League. 

On Monday, Gov. Gray Davis relaxed California air pollution rules for natural gas-fired power plants. Davis, seeking another tool against rotating summer blackouts, estimates his executive order will generate new power for about 1 million residents. 

The governor, backed by the California Air Resources Board, said the only alternative is to run even dirtier diesel-fired generating plants. His order, effective until cooler weather expected by Oct. 31, also establishes new fines paid by gas-fired power generators to local air districts to retire other sources of pollution. 

While the Davis administration describes the move as “a net gain for air quality,” environmental advocates call it a “sad outcome” and “genuine tragedy.” 

“I suppose we should take some comfort that they’re saving the diesels for last,” said V. John White, lobbyist for the Sierra Club in California. “But it’s a sign that the environment is a casualty in this energy meltdown.” 

Ross Mirkarimi, spokesman for the California Green Party, called the rule change another “knee-jerk remedy that does nothing to mitigate what looks like is poised to be a long-term problem. 

“Every action the governor takes to abate this energy crisis should be done with sustainable policies in mind,” he said. “And so far to date, Gov. Davis has not reacted to the short-term crisis and planned properly for the long-term future in a common sense, green, consumer-oriented manner.” 

Jim Martin, energy analyst at the Environmental Defense Fund, called the governor’s order a mixed blessing. 

“The positive aspect is that the order expires in October of this year,” he said. “The other is that they’re going to collect the money and offset with other reductions.” 

The Sierra Club’s White said he believes the state will end up paying the fines on behalf of power generators to local air districts. 

“We’ve breached another fundamental principle,” White said, “which is that polluters should pay the cost of the pollution themselves. This is a horrible price we’re paying.” 

Davis spokesman Roger Salazar said power generators must pay their own fines, estimated at about $37.50 per megawatt, to the air districts. 

“The idea that they build it into the price is subject to negotiation,” he said. 

Martin called it “a genuine tragedy that we’ve reached this point. The health effects are very large and the potential megawatts are small. Maybe we should turn off a few lights.” 

Likewise, the California Public Interest Research Group called for stronger conservation measures, including state-funded rebates for energy-efficient appliances and tax credits for “clean” household power systems. 

Spelliscy of the California Planning and Conservation League said many activists are wondering if the state did enough to encourage conservation. Also, a hurry-up plan for plant development could lead to mistakes. 

“I think we’re taking a big step backward,” she said. 

Salazar said it’s the only way to avoid using the diesel-fired generators that environmentalists claim to fear even more than blackouts. 

“If you expand the hours these natural gas plants are operating, you won’t have to use the backup diesel generators, which typically emit 10 times more emissions,” he said. “If you want to avoid blackouts, this is a more preferable way of doing it.”