The departed administration of ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been thoroughly discredited, its record of bending public policy to the whims of campaign donors often demonstrated and his own lack of trustworthiness amply proven.
But pockets of Schwarzenegger’s influence and the lack of integrity he epitomized remain in place fully eight months after his departure from office, one of the most notable at the California Air Resources Board.
During the last year of the ex-muscleman’s tenure, the ARB –arbiter of air quality issues for all the state’s cars, trucks, and industries – was beset with doubts about its own truthfulness.
Questions arose last year when some of its pollution estimates turned out to be off by as much as 300 percent, as with its figures on how much diesel fuel is burned in California and the level of particulate smog produced by diesel motors. Those flawed estimates were used to force operators of diesel-powered trucks, off-road vehicles, seaport and airport machinery, and others to retrofit engines or replace them with new models producing far less oxides of nitrogen and particulates.
The errors were discovered and the rules placed in abeyance only because of the work of an outside researcher using information readily available to – but unused by – the ARB’s own staff.
There was also the concurrent charge that the ARB spurred a UCLA decision to deny reappointment to epidemiology researcher James Enstrom after 34 years there. This came after Enstrom authored a report claiming there is no evidence that particulates from diesel exhaust kill anyone, a direct contradiction of longtime ARB dogma and its claim that crud from diesels has caused at least 18,000 premature deaths.
Any questions about the ARB’s trustworthiness quickly become critical because the public health – and many billions of dollars – are at stake in its decisions. For more than 50 years until 2010, no one seriously questioned the integrity of air board decisions, with politicians of both left and right consistently backing its pioneering smog-fighting tactics. These have included everything from requirements for the first rudimentary smog control devices to catalytic converters to emission standards that led to hybrid and electric cars.
The credibility questions made it clear last winter that a housecleaning was in order at the top levels of the ARB, that newly restored Gov. Jerry Brown ought to appoint replacements for the Schwarzenegger-appointed board chair Mary Nichols and others.
But that never happened. Brown kept Nichols in office, possibly because their ties go back to his earlier administration in the late 1970s, when Nichols eagerly backed a long-ago discredited plan to set up centralized smog control centers that would have ended the extensive network of small shops California featured both then and now. She also supported development of liquefied natural gas importing facilities along the California coast, a notion long since discredited – in fact, many such importing stations in other states are now being converted to exports.
So Nichols has made significant errors before.
Now she backs a cap-and-trade system as the major way to enforce the greenhouse-gas reductions mandated by the state’s landmark AB32 pollution-cutting law. That’s a system where major polluters could buy clean-air credits from others who pollute less than what they’re allowed to emit. Nichols has not wavered despite last year’s collapse of a Midwestern exchange that operated 10 years before failing.
One of her latest moves is a one-year delay of this state’s planned cap-and-trade system, a decision that has already been criticized as politically motivated by some business lobbyists. Such accusations were never hurled at the ARB before questions about its honesty arose last year.
Even some conservation groups like Communities for a Better Environment contend there are better ways than cap-and-trade to reach the AB32 carbon-reduction goals.
The key question for Brown here is whether such questions would still be arising had he cleaned house at the ARB immediately on re-entering the governor’s office.
He could have eliminated all doubt about the ARB’s integrity by placing a different, respected academic at the head of this agency that has more power and national influence than almost any other in California.
Because he did nothing of the sort, sticking instead with frequent government appointee Nichols, the mistakes and questions raised last year continue to dog the reputation of the ARB, which perpetually needs to be as pure as Caesar’s wife in order to be trusted and effective.
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