California’s efforts to tackle climate change could benefit poor and minority communities long burdened by industrial pollution if the state takes into account the needs of communities hurt most by climate change, a new report finds.
The report makes the case that reducing greenhouse gas emissions will not only slow warming trends, but also improve air quality in neighborhoods with high levels of pollution.
“If California gets its climate change policy right, it means we can target our greenhouse gas reductions
in communities most affected by dirty air,” said report co-author Rachel Morello-Frosch, associate professor of environmental science, policy and management at the School of Public Health at University of California, Berkeley. “This would ensure we could reap immediate public health benefits from climate change policy now.”
Called “Minding the Climate Gap," the report helps to document what many people intuitively believe about “fenceline” communities, those located near power plants, oil refineries and other industrial sources.
First, researchers pinpointed oil refineries, power plants and cement kilns as the state’s top greenhouse gas emitters. Then they drew a “buffer zone” around the facilities, and using multiple databases, sketched a demographic profile of the surrounding communities. They found that people of color account for 60 percent of the population within six miles of these facilities.
“Communities of color, not surprisingly, bear a disproportionate emissions burden from the facilities we looked at,” said Morello-Frosch. “African Americans, Latinos and Asian-Pacific Islander groups tend to have a higher emissions burden than whites even after accounting for income of the neighborhoods.”
The top greenhouse gas emitters also spew particulate pollution, so residents living near those facilities are exposed to high levels of air pollutants, such as smog-forming ozone and soot, which are linked to asthma, heart attacks and lung cancer. The report found that people of color experience 70 percent more particulate pollution within 2.5 miles of the facilities than their white counterparts, with oil refineries contributing the bulk of that pollution.
Wilmington, Calif., is one such pollution hotspot. It has six oil refineries and two power plants. Alicia Rivera, an organizer with the statewide organization Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), says residents there also breathe dirty air from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, major transportation hubs that send out diesel trucks onto two major nearby freeways.
Rivera’s group worked with regional air quality officials to create rules that limit “flaring events” to relieve the build up of gases at oil refineries to emergencies only.
“But [the oil refineries] continue to use flaring on a normal basis, not in real emergencies,” said Rivera, who says flaring events spew air pollutants such as sulfur oxides.
California’s landmark climate law, AB 32, calls for greenhouse gases to be rolled back to 1990 levels by 2020. The state Air Resources Board, which is responsible for implementing the legislation, has proposed a cap-and-trade program in which companies that cannot reduce their emissions can buy credits from those that can.
“Minding the Climate Gap” outlines several policy recommendations for implementing AB 32 in a way that maximizes the public health benefits. One proposes that facilities creating the most pollution be restricted from trading credits. Another proposes channeling some of the revenues generated by the cap-and-trade program or other revenue streams to communities with the worst pollution.
However, AB 32 is facing a challenge from Texas oil companies Valero and Tesoro, which are bankrolling a ballot initiative campaign to halt implementation of the law. The initiative’s supporters say AB 32 would harm the state’s economic recovery, and it should be suspended until the state’s jobless rate drops to 5.5 percent for four quarters.
“The major contributors to overturn the climate law are also the major contributors to the human health impacts, if we don’t implement the climate law. It’s a remarkable coincidence,” said Manuel Pastor, another report co-author and director of the program for environmental and regional equity, Center for Sustainable Cities at the University of Southern California.
A spokesperson for Tesoro declined to comment. Valero spokesperson Bill Day declined to comment on the report, instead directing inquires to the California Jobs Initiative, the organization Valero supports which is spearheading the campaign against AB 32.
“Greenhouse gases are not the problem,” said Anita Mangels, communications director for the California Jobs Initiative. “California has the strictest air and water quality regulations in the country, and the companies that are mentioned are operating within those laws; therefore, their facilities tend to be cleaner than their counterparts in other states.”
Mangels said public health gains could better be made through state environmental laws, rather than through a climate law that would lead to job losses and higher energy costs.
But the impact of AB 32 on jobs is debatable. Last month, the Air Resources Board released a report finding the climate law would not hurt the state’s economy, but instead lead to a net gain in jobs.
Pastor said California’s climate law has the potential to create jobs, too, by spurring innovation in sectors such as clean technology. He said part of the cost equation is the gains from healthier communities.