Environmental Groups Say California's Climate Program Has Not Helped Them

Originally published on March 6, 2017 9:36 am

In the Wilmington neighborhood of Los Angeles, residential streets dead end at oil refineries. Diesel trucks crawl through, carrying containers from nearby ports. Longtime resident Magali Sanchez Hall says the pollution from all that has taken a toll, right on the street where she lives.

"The people that live here, the mother died of cancer," she says, pointing to a modest one-story home. "The people that live here, three people died of cancer."

The state's own research finds people in Wilmington are about twice as likely to get cancer as the average person in greater Los Angeles. That's not because of the carbon dioxide coming out of smokestacks. It is mostly due to diesel fumes, but also the toxic chemicals that mix with the greenhouse gas emissions of refineries.

Sanchez Hall wipes her finger across the hood of a car and holds it up. "Black dust," she says.

Given all this, you might think Sanchez Hall would be excited about California's so-called cap-and-trade program, which aims to get polluting companies, like the refineries here, to reduce emissions. But she and others say the state's signature climate change program is failing them.

"When I first heard about cap-and-trade, I couldn't conceive how pollution had become a commodity to profit from," says Alicia Rivera of Communities for a Better Environment.

Under the program, California sets an overall cap on carbon emissions. In order to meet it, companies have three choices: cut their emissions directly; buy and sell permits that allow them to keep emitting; or make up for their emissions by reducing emissions somewhere else. That last option is called an "offset" and environmental justice activists like Rivera hate it the most.

"We don't care if they have a project for tree planting elsewhere," she says. "When are they going to reduce pollution here?"

A recent study finds that emissions in places like Wilmington actually increased during the first two years of the program.

California's cap-and-trade system faces other challenges, including a lawsuit by the California Chamber of Commerce, which alleges the program is an illegal tax unless it garners two-thirds approval in the legislature. Gov. Jerry Brown is urging lawmakers to give that approval, and extend cap-and-trade beyond 2020.

But some lawmakers are sympathetic to the environmental justice position. And some advocates recently declared they will "fight at every turn" efforts to extend cap-and-trade, and push instead for something that guarantees direct emissions reductions.

Those who run the cap-and-trade program say they are listening, and acting. "It's probably premature to try to judge the program's total effectiveness at this point because it hasn't been in effect very long," says Dave Clegern of the California Air Resources Board. But he says the board is proposing that refineries cut their emissions by 20 percent.

Still, the state says it also wants to keep cap-and-trade, which a recent legislative report deemed the "likely most cost-effective" approach to reducing greenhouse gases. Clegern says auctioning off carbon credits also generates a lot of money, and by law, half of it must benefit people living in disadvantaged communities. "What we have basically is a balancing act," he says, "where we need to be able to keep the economy alive, [and] keep public health improving."

The state's Air Resources Board will consider whether and how to amend its cap-and-trade program in June.

But in Wilmington, some are losing patience. Longtime resident Magali Sanchez Hall says the polluted air affects even her smallest daily decisions, like where to work out. "I try to come to exercise here at this park," she says, driving down her street. "But it just feels weird to be exercising and breathing all this, you know? It's just weird."

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California lawmakers have to vote this year on whether to extend the state's signature climate change plan. It's called cap-and-trade. And it's under attack from environmental groups. From member station KPCC, Emily Guerin reports.

EMILY GUERIN, BYLINE: In Wilmington, Calif., residential streets dead end at oil refineries. Diesel trucks crawl through neighborhoods carrying containers from the nearby ports. Longtime resident Magali Sanchez Hall walks me down her street of modest-one story homes.

MAGALI SANCHEZ HALL: The people that live here, the mother died of cancer. The people that live here, three people died of cancer.

GUERIN: The state's own research has found that people here are about twice as likely to get cancer as the average person in greater Los Angeles. That's mostly due to diesel, but also the toxic chemicals that come out of refineries along with greenhouse gas emissions. Sanchez Hall wipes her finger across the hood of a car.

HALL: (Speaking Spanish).

GUERIN: "It's a black dust," she says. So given all of this, you might think that Sanchez Hall would be excited about California's fight to get polluting companies like refineries to reduce their emissions. Instead, she and others say California's signature climate change program is failing them.

HALL: You know, when I first hear about cap-and-trade, I couldn't conceive how pollution had become a commodity to profit from.

GUERIN: Standing next to a refinery in Wilmington, I talked to Alicia Rivera with Communities for a Better Environment. She explains how cap-and-trade works. First, the state sets an overall cap on carbon emissions. Then, in order to meet it, companies have three choices. First, they can cut their emissions directly. Second, they can buy and sell permits that allow them to keep emitting. Or third, they can make up for their emissions by reducing them somewhere else, say, by planting a tree farm. This is called an offset. And environmental justice activists like Rivera hate these the most.

ALICIA RIVERA: We don't care if they have a project for tree planting elsewhere. When are they going to reduce pollution here?

GUERIN: A recent study found that emissions in places like Wilmington actually increased during the first two years of cap-and-trade.

DAVE CLEGERN: It's probably premature to try to judge the program's total effectiveness at this point because it hasn't been in effect very long, only a couple of years.

GUERIN: Dave Clegern is with the California Air Resources Board which runs the cap-and-trade program. He says the state is listening to the environmental justice community. His agency is proposing that refineries cut their emissions by 20 percent. But they also want to keep cap-and-trade around because auctioning off carbon credits generates a lot of money. And by law, about a third of that money must benefit people living in disadvantaged communities.

CLEGERN: What we have basically is a balancing act where we need to be able to keep the economy alive, keep public health improving and balance all of these suggestions and concerns.

GUERIN: But some environmental justice advocates are so frustrated, they're talking about suing the state. They want the state to scrap cap-and-trade in favor of something that guarantees direct emissions reductions in places like Wilmington, where every day, polluted air affects even the smallest decisions like where to work out. Longtime resident Magali Sanchez Hall drives me by an empty park just down the street from her house.

HALL: See, I try to come to exercise here at this park. A lot of people do. But it just feels weird to be exercising and breathing all this, you know? It's just weird.

GUERIN: For NPR News, I'm Emily Guerin in Wilmington, Calif.

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