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A look at the RECLAIM program shows that what failed in L.A., won’t work statewide

It seems inevitable. Every year, Los Angeles makes the list for the top 10 most-polluted cities in the United States. L.A. is number one in ozone, number four in year-round particle pollution and number nine in short-term particle pollution, according to the American Lung Association. Studies show that every year more than 5,000 Southern Californians either die or get chronically sick from air pollution. After decades, policy makers still cannot agree on how to clean up our air.

Now, Angelenos can breathe a sigh of relief as the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) has decided to sunset a decades-old pollution credit-trading program that most everyone agrees is not working. Recently, the SCAQMD board of directors voted 7 to 6, to phase out a cap-and-trade program, known as the Regional Clean Air Incentives Market (RECLAIM) as part of its 15-year smog reduction plan. For two and a half decades, RECLAIM has allowed polluters to purchase credits swaps from communities with little pollution, instead of actually reducing emissions from polluting plants. It is not clear how quickly SCAQMD will scrap reclaim, but it will replace it with mandated cuts to pollution, which have been proven to work.

For two and a half decades, RECLAIM has allowed polluters to purchase credits swaps from communities with little pollution, instead of actually reducing emissions from polluting plants.

This will bring welcome relief to communities near toxic power plants, factories, refineries and oil drilling rigs. These largely low-income neighborhoods, populated by people of color and immigrants, are known as “sacrifice zones” because policy makers and industry often ignore them.

The SCAQMD will scrap RECLAIM “as soon as practicable” and will meet in 30 to 60 days to work out a plan. Even Board Director Burke admitted that it has “run its course.” Unfortunately air quality officials voted down a proposal to regulate pollution from ports and warehouses, a major source of pollution in the nation’s smoggiest metropolitan area.

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What failed in L.A. won’t work statewide

RECLAIM’s fiasco did not stop Governor Brown and the California Air Resources Board from launching a statewide cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in early 2012. It includes allowance auctions, offsets, and other market-based ways to avoid directly reducing emissions. Recently, the Western States Petroleum Association endorsed cap-and-trade as an alternative to actual environmental protection. So far, there is no evidence that state’s cap-and-trade program has cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Meanwhile, Governor Brown has made it the cornerstone of his climate policy and industry-friendly legislators are eager to keep it alive via Assembly Bill 151, which will require a two-thirds majority approval by the legislature.

Back to what works

There is a better way. Up until the early 1990s, Los Angeles successfully improved air quality by enforcing pollution controls in industry and smog standards in motor vehicles. RECLAIM was launched under pressure from industry lobbyists who wanted relax the requirements of the Clean Air Act.

SQAMD has taken the first step in recognizing that the only real solution for Los Angeles—and all of California—is to return to mandatory pollution reductions. These steps should be met with transitioning our city and state to 100 percent clean, renewable energy. California needs to stop giving a free pass to polluters, which are motivated by the bottom line, not the public interest.

It is time to stop building and expanding power plants and refineries and guarantee clean air for all people, regardless of where they live. Our public officials must go back to their original approach of ordering polluters to reduce their emissions. Period.


Andrea Leon-Grossmann

Andrea Leon-Grossman is Southern California Organizer with Food & Water Watch. Food & Water Watch champions healthy food and clean water for all. We stand up to corporations that put profits before people, and advocate for a democracy that improves people’s lives and protects our environment.