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Local air regulators say it's impossible to meet smog standards without federal help

Tony Briscoe, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

LOS ANGELES — Southern California air regulators have approved a sweeping plan to reduce pollution in the nation’s smoggiest region within the next two decades, but say they cannot meet national air quality standards without federal action.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District governing board voted 9-2 on Friday to adopt a nearly 5,000-page plan, which is expected to serve as a roadmap on how the air district expects to comply with the 2015 federal standard for ozone (the lung-aggravating haze commonly known as smog).

Within the voluminous report, the air district outlines dozens of potential measures that could reduce smog-forming nitrogen oxides and bring the region closer to meeting the 2015 ozone standard, which it is required to meet by 2037. But air district officials said these proposals alone would not help the region meet that target, and implored the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to curtail pollution in ports, rail yards and airports — all of which fall under federal authority.

To meet the 2015 standard, nitrogen oxides — produced by the combustion of fossil fuels — must be limited to 60 tons a day across the air basin, according to estimates by air district officials. By comparison, 351 tons of nitrogen oxides were released each day in 2018, the last year the air district calculated these emissions. Only 14% of those were from fixed sources that the air district can regulate, such as refineries, power plants and buildings.

The California Air Resources Board is expected to considerably lower the mobile sources under its purview, recently approving a landmark ban on sales of new gas-powered cars by 2035.

However, even with existing rules at the state and local level, nitrogen oxides emissions are expected to fall to 184 tons a day by 2037, more than triple the 2015 ozone standard.

 

Around 46% of that is expected to be released from federal sources, including ocean-faring ships, locomotives, aircraft and interstate trucks.

Sources of pollution under state and regional authority “are becoming smaller and smaller, but the federal regulatory scheme has pretty much been stagnant on heavy-duty mobile sources,” said Sarah Rees, assistant deputy executive with the South Coast air district. “And so we really need the federal government to be able to step up. It’s simply not possible to be able to achieve the standard without federal government action — and substantial action at that.”

In April, the air district sent a letter to EPA Administrator Michael Regan, threatening to sue the agency for violating the Clean Air Act, saying the federal agency had made the air district’s task impossible. The air district has still not filed a lawsuit, and the letter was largely seen as an attempt to compel the federal agency to the bargaining table.

However, the impasse continues.

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