Study: Minority Communities Suffer Most If California Suspends AB 32

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If California’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction law, AB 32, is suspended or poorly implemented, communities of color and poor neighborhoods will suffer the most, according to a new report funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

This is in large part due to co-pollutants like PM10 (particulate matter of 10 micrometers or less), which can cause respiratory problems and come from the refineries and power plants that AB 32 will regulate.

As the report points out, suspending AB 32 puts much more at stake than halting climate change.

Several studies have established that people of color and the poor suffer greater impacts of climate change than other populations in the United States and that high toxic emissions in non-attainment areas in California, those not compliant with federal Clean Air Act standards, are costing the state, and its taxpayers, hundreds of millions of dollars in health care.

“There is a hidden pattern showing that the poor and people of color will suffer more economic and health consequences of climate change than other Americans. It’s called the climate gap," says Rachel Morello-Frosch, associate professor of environmental science, policy and management at the University of California, Berkeley.

The new report finds that some of the same Texas-based oil companies that are funding efforts to suspend the implementation of AB 32, Valero and Tesoro, operate oil refineries that cause some of the greatest adverse effects in low-income and communities of color. In fact Tesoro ranks first among refineries for adverse health impacts in the state and second for quantities of co-pollutants with their greenhouse gas emissions.

The study, conducted by researchers at Berkeley, the University of Southern California and Occidental College, also finds that co-pollutants at refineries cause far more harm in low-income and minority communities than those from power plants.

“Refineries and power plants emit the same CO2 and reductions make the same contribution to addressing global warming, but their co-pollutants are quite different,” explains Manuel Pastor, director of the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE) at USC.

“Take La Paloma [a power plant 35 miles outside Bakersfield] where there are fewer than 600 people living near the power plant, but the Exxon refinery in Torrance has 800,000 people in a six mile radius and emits seven times as many co-pollutants.”

The authors found that people of color, and not just those of lower income, are disproportionately living near greenhouse gas emitting facilities, as are children living in poverty.

Throughout the state, people of color experience 70% more PM10 pollution than whites. The bulk of the difference, say the study authors, has to do with petroleum refineries. The refineries contribute most to the racial disparity in terms of PM10 exposure. They also happen to be contributing the most to efforts to suspend AB 32.

Of the top 10 facilities on the pollution disparities index, eight are refineries, including Tesoro and Valero. These same refineries rank in the top 10 in terms of health impacts due to emissions.

Getting AB 32 Right

The authors of new study say that if AB 32 isn’t implemented right, or right away, we will all lose.

They warn against a “blind” market strategy for carbon trading that ignores the adverse effects of co-pollutants and suggest that reductions need to be focused on those facilities that cause the most harm in terms of public health costs and disparity. Carbon trading between sectors, they suggest, should be restricted and is a bigger threat to maximizing the positive impacts of AB 32 than allowance distributions and trading within sectors.

“Allowing refineries to trade or pay their way out of reductions mean a lost opportunity to create clean air,” Pastor said. “Paying instead of reducing keeps the disparities very much in play.”

The report suggests four policy alternatives: restricting allowance allocations and trading or fee options among the worst offenders; creating trading zones, a strategy that has already been tested in California; implementing surcharges to pay for mitigation in the most highly polluted neighborhoods; and creating a climate gap neighborhood fund to help pay for additional mitigation.

The authors plan to bring these findings to the California Air Resources Board, which is still in the process of finalizing an implementation strategy for AB32.

In the meantime, the voters of California must decide, through a potential ballot initiative and the choice of a new governor in November, whether they will allow AB 32 to move forward and take advantage of the potential health, social and economic benefits it will provide the state.

Voters’ Views

Two new surveys being released this week involving Hispanic voters and African-American voters found high levels of support for federal action on climate change and shifting the country toward cleaner, renewable energy.

One survey, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies for the National Latino Coalition on Climate Change, found that among Hispanic voters in three states with upcoming Senate races, 80% in Florida, 67% in Nevada, and 58% in Colorado said they were more likely to vote for a U.S. Senate candidate who supports proposals to increase the use of renewable energy and reduce global warming pollution. The numbers of voters who said they would be less likely to vote for such a candidate were 4%, 5% and 10% respectively.

At least 87% of the voters surveyed in all three states said they support "a clean energy plan that requires electric power companies to generate one-quarter of their electricity from clean, renewable sources such as wind, geothermal and solar by the year 2025." The poll surveyed 300 Hispanic registered voters per state and had a margin of error of plus or minus 5.66 percentage points.

A separate poll of African-American voters in the battleground states of Arkansas, Indiana, Missouri and South Carolina was conducted for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

While the economy was still the number one issue for African-American voters, a high percentage said that Senate candidates’ views on climate change would be somewhat or very important in determining who they voted for — 76% in Arkansas, 74% in Indiana, 72% in Missouri, and 79% in South Carolina. That poll, conducted by Research America, had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.


See also:

Life on an Urban Oil Field

Closing America’s Climate Gap Between Rich and Poor

Oil & Industry: Connecting the Dots in the War Over California’s Greenhouse Gas Law


(Photo: Leslie Berliant)