Damage to the ExxonMobil Torrance refinery from the explosion seen from 190th Street
Damage to the ExxonMobil Torrance refinery from the explosion seen from 190th Street Credit: Photo by John Schreiber

As the four-year drought chokes our Southern California reservoirs and rivers dry, six oil refineries expel, leak and explode toxic pollutants into neighboring school soccer fields and family backyard gardens. Diesel exhaust looms over the freeways that crisscross the region, as extreme methods of drilling using toxic chemicals have revived an almost-dead oil industry that exist side-by-side with apartments and parks. Then a massive methane blowout that lasted months forced wholesale evacuations of entire San Fernando Valley neighborhoods and has assured our climate will continue to destabilize.

Southern California, and the world, has a problem, and it is killing us.

Our dependency on fossil fuels to get to work on time, to light our homes, to fertilize our fields, is reaching the end stage of addiction: a disease in which the miracle energy source has transformed our urban landscape into an industrial mess, our climate now unpredictable and quite deadly. Fossil fuels mined in our backyards and burned out in the streets, shorten our lives with accelerated rates of asthma, heart disease and cancer. Extreme weather affects millions with wildfires in Russia and Canada, super-hurricanes on the East Coast and the Philippines, and massive floods in Texas and Pakistan.

How can we Break Free of this habit?

Clean renewable energy and storage is not some futuristic theory.

According to Stanford University’s Solutions Project, California could achieve 100 percent renewables by 2050 using onshore and offshore wind farms, photovoltaic systems, rooftop solar panels and concentrated solar plants, with some limited hydroelectricity, geothermal, and wave and tidal power. Of course, this goal is achievable in anywhere from ten years from now.

For this goal, along with thousands of fellow Californians, I will be marching in downtown Los Angeles on May 14.

In addition to people in the streets, we need governmental agencies to enforce regulations, to stop the polluting fossil fuel production, and to encourage an economy powered by clean, renewable energy.

Yet, in these times of impending climate catastrophe, the very fossil fuel producers with dangerous accident records and polluting expansions proposed have captured our regulatory boards and their staffs. By wielding well-connected lobbyists and lawyers, they mobilize their political operatives with power and profit, not human and ecosystem health on their minds.

I have written at length on the regulatory capture at the California Coastal Commission (CCC) here and here. This is the agency that will weigh in on coastal energy projects such as the closing of Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant and Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery Oil Trains Expansion project. Yet, the CCC coup was only one of our agencies charged with overseeing industry beginning to see things industry’s way.

Business-Friendly Take-Over at the South Coast Air Board

What about the capture of the agency most responsible for regulating the fossil fuel industry in Southern California, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD)? They oversee air pollution control for all of Orange County and the urban portions of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, among the smoggiest regions of the U.S.

Last year O.C. Republican operatives, in an organized, back-channel move, ousted a long-time clean energy advocate on the Governing Board, Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido, a Democrat with his own set of influence questions. They replaced him with Lake Forest Councilman Dwight Robinson, a Republican who is vice president and general manager of Los Angeles Harbor Grain Terminal, a business at the L.A. port that loads exporters’ agricultural goods into cargo containers.

Furthermore, San Bernardino County Democratic supervisor Josie Gonzalez was replaced by Rancho Cucamonga Republican Janice Rutherford. The latter Supervisor has led efforts to reduce County spending, rein in pensions, protect local businesses and restore public trust in County government, but is not known for protecting at-risk communities from the depredations of corporate capitalism.

While generally non-partisan, the two changes gave the district a new voting majority on its 13-member governing board – seven Republicans and six Democrats.

“This is definitely reason to celebrate,” said Orange County GOP Chairman Fred Whitaker to the OC Register. He said that gas stations have been over-regulated and expressed concern about future regulations governing trucks carrying goods from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Regulating and Staffing from Industry’s Perspective

In December, the board rejected a clean-air plan to reduce ozone pollution negotiated by its staff over 37 months in favor of a plan made public that very morning, developed by the Western States Petroleum Assn., a refinery lobbying group. The South bay and LA Harbor Refineries, after all, account for 60% of nitrogen oxide emissions in Southern California, and neighboring Wilmington and West Long Beach have some of the highest childhood asthma rates in the region and state.

Then early this year, after three community hearings on the months-long Porter Ranch Methane Blow-Out, the AQMD bowed to pressure from SoCalGas/Sempra and the Public Utilities Commission, only shutting the leaking well down as opposed to listening to the community and closing the entire Aliso Canyon Natural Gas underground storage facility.

In March, the governing board, inspired by Charles Lester’s troubles at the CCC, fired its executive officer, Barry Wallerstein. The latter made the mistake of pushing for the more stringent smog rules, and launched a suit against SoCalGas for negligence that harmed the region’s air. They temporarily replaced him with Wayne Nastri, a former administrator of the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Pacific Southwest region under George W. Bush, and most recently president (revolving door lobbyist) of the environmental and energy consulting firm E4 Strategic Solutions.

Adrian Martinez, an attorney for Earthjustice, saw the writing on the wall. “Nastri embodies the dangers of the revolving door – he has made a career out of using his government experience to influence and lobby regulators on behalf of his corporate clients,” he said in an email to the OC Register.

Then in April, ExxonMobil’s Torrance refinery was given regulatory approval by SCAQMD regulators to produce emissions that violate clean air standards as it restarts the plant for gasoline manufacturing more than a year after it was crippled in an explosion. Central to the technical impasse over approval was the company’s apparent culpability in deliberately failing to fix equipment that led to the explosion, a preliminary finding from a federal investigation that has yet to formally conclude.

Last week, to illustrate Republicans aren’t the only problematic Governing Board members, the Los Angeles County political machine, starring Chair Dr. William (Bill) Burke, removed David Holtzman, a highly-qualified air pollution health scientist and public interest attorney from the Hearing Board. He replaced him with his crony, the integrity- and impartiality-challenged Nate Holden, who had some troubles in his position with the City Council of Los Angeles, where he received illegal campaign contributions from the LA Marathon, a private business controlled by none other than Bill Burke. Payback at the expense of competent members of the AQMD Hearing Board?

Did I mention two of the Governing Board members are father-son? Riverside County Board of Supervisor John J. Benoit; his son, Wildomar City Councilman Ben Benoit.

Nepotism anyone?

The next major project on the Hearing Board docket on May17: The Tesoro Wilmington / BP Carson Refinery Merger, creating the largest refinery on West Coast. The project could allow importing extreme oil: Heavy Canadian Tar Sands or explosive Bakken, combining two oil refineries into a massive 380,000 barrel per day facility.

Considering the dangerous implications to the health of our communities, our water and air, and our climate stability, we will be speaking out to #BreakFree from this corporate capture by the fossil fuel lobby at the May 14th climate march in downtown Los Angeles.

Actions to Clean House at SCAQMD

State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) sent a letter to Los Angeles County supervisors asking them to seek Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich’s resignation from the South Coast air board over his “long-standing opposition to policies that protect clean air.” As his Supervisorial term expires this year, the Board of Supervisors must take action to replace him with an environmental justice advocate.

In this regard, Senator de León has proposed adding three environmental justice advocates as new Governing Board Members, appointed by leaders of the Senate, Assembly and Governor’s office. Yet, this approach does have its limitations. Candidates must be vetted publicly, with a comment period allowed, and a public hearing on appointments. Members of the community should occupy significant roles in the vetting process. Senator de León’s reforms should be amended to ensure a community role in the future.

And finally, the reality is we the people of California demand a public investigation to bring to light the many shady practices happening at the SCAQMD. The California Assembly Joint Legislative Audit Committee should immediately conduct an investigation of the structure, staffing, and mission of the SCAQMD.

See you at Break Free Los Angeles on May 14, where we will come together to envision a sustainable fossil fuel free world. Find out more at https://la.breakfree2016.org/

Jack Eidt is director of Wild Heritage Planners, editor of WilderUtopia.com.

 Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue please contact Voice of OC Involvement Editor Theresa Sears at TSears@voiceofoc.org  

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