Last week, Communities for a Better Environment, the Sierra Club, the Center for Biodiversity, and the Natural Resources Defense Council dismissed their lawsuits against the South Coast Air Quality Management District for an ineffective pollution trade program called RECLAIM – or the Regional Clean Air Incentive Market. This lawsuit has lasted more than six years and marks the next chapter in the environmental justice fight that pits Big Oil against communities. This marks a major environmental justice win as it marks a critical moment in the fight against ineffective programs designed for fossil fuel interests.
The RECLAIM program has shielded some of the biggest polluters from controlling emissions, such as refineries in the country’s second-largest metropolitan area. For over three decades, communities have criticized and consistently pointed out the flaws of this program. And in the end, advocates pieced together a winning strategy to tackle Big Oil and its pollution reduction program scam. The story is played in three acts below.
Chapter 1: Air Zone Buys What Oil Lobbyists Are Selling
In the early 1990s, the Air Zone abandoned the mandatory rules that were fundamental to regulation and instead strayed dangerously into a new type of program that purports to reduce pollution, called pollution trading. Like a juicer salesman on late night television, oil lobbyists invented and sold the air zone with a grandiose vision for a pollution trade plan that they claimed would reduce emissions quickly and economically.
These lobbyists convinced the Air Zone to break up their so-called “command and control” rules, which set specific requirements for major polluters to install the best pollution control technology available at the time. Instead, they created the Regional Clean Air Incentive Market – or RECLAIM. The trade was for nitrogen oxides, or “NOx,” which are harmful pollutants that create smoke when mixed with volatile organic compounds and cooked in the sun. NOx is produced by the burning of fossil fuels, and they contribute greatly to the smog that covers Los Angeles for more than a third of the year. It’s like a stock market where people make money by selling and trading, but instead of stocks, bonds or commodities like grain and steel, they trade the right to send pollution into the lungs of Southland residents.
The pollution trading program has been and continues to be a nightmare. It gave an overlay of pollution reductions that occurred with a major problem – the amount of reductions required by law did not actually occur. As one of the seminals Reviews From RECLAIM, “The pollution trade in Los Angeles has led to intense toxic air emission hotspots that chain low-income and minority communities with the area’s air pollution.”
Chapter 2: Air Zone Doubles Its Failed Experiment
By 2015, it was blatantly clear that the RECLAIM program was a major failure. With so much credit available, the abundance of credit made loans so cheap that mega polluters like refineries were accumulating credit. This has resulted in a shocking 20-year increase in refinery emissions as refiners prefer to purchase credits rather than install vitally needed and readily available pollution control equipment.
Faced with growing evidence that RECLAIM is failing to deliver the promised pollution reductions, Air Zone staff recommended removing multiple credits from the system. Staff hoped that this fundamental reform would increase the cost of credit, at least enough to encourage some of the region’s biggest polluters to clean up their pollution.
But even this modest reform was too much for the oil industry. Oil industry lobbyists are back in action, creating their own alternative proposals filled with loopholes so polluters can continue to pollute as they please. The Air District’s appointed leaders endorsed the industry’s much weaker plan, rather than backing their own staff’s recommendations for a more sanitary recommendation to curb noxious fumes. This decision was so outrageous that it caused great repercussions. in the editorial Los Angeles timesThe editorial board called the agency and blew its choice to “make it easy for oil refineries, power plants, and other large industrial operations to continue to emit smoky emissions.”
The industry’s decision to support his proposal left a deep stigma in the Air Zone and a bitter taste in the mouths of people fed up with the RECLAIM program – and now the agency is even more frustrated that a plan to allow refineries has been rubber-stamped. they continue their deadly pollution.
Chapter 3: Frontline Communities Sued Enough Air Zones
The apparent illegality of the Air Zone’s maneuver was met with stiff resistance. Earthjustice, Communities for a Better Environment, on behalf of the Center for Biodiversity and the Sierra Club, together with the Natural Resources Defense Council, filed a lawsuit challenging the air district board’s approval of this illegal plan. And we to win.
Faced with court proceedings and growing public pressure, the Air District Board finally relented in 2017 and made a u-turn, directs staff to abolish the RECLAIM program and finally switch to command and control rules to clean up the biggest industrial pollutants in the area. The irony is that the oil industry went into overdrive in 2015, which probably backfired by removing their award-winning program that’s been protecting pocketbooks for more than 20 years.
Eventually, the Air Zone began developing rules to curb the region’s biggest sources of constant pollution. The refinery rule is the most important and therefore the most important one of these rules.
Final Word: We Proceed to Reclaim Our Agency for People, Not Pollutants
The sad truth is that hundreds or even thousands of lives could have been saved if we had tackled this problem sooner. For nearly three decades, the Air Zone has given industry a free pass by allowing lobbyists to devise an opaque trading plan that allows pollutants to play with the system and avoid cleaning. The Air Zone is a pawn in the industry’s deadly game, but the ultimate losers are the fenced communities that have spent their entire lives struggling to breathe near these refineries. We can never get those years back, but what we can do is learn from our mistakes.
The trade didn’t work, no matter how much industry lobbyists wanted to argue. Half of the equipment under the RECLAIM program – hundreds of parts in refineries – has not installed ready-made and life-saving pollution controls. This dirty, decades-old equipment has spread more pollution into communities than it should have in decades. And that happened in the most ozonated region of the country, the South Coast Air Basin, which includes millions of residents and families in Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, and Riverside counties.
Unfortunately, this thirty-year disaster of an experiment in the pollution trade is coming to an end. We’ve all learned a serious and painful lesson about what can happen if oil companies are allowed to exercise decades of unsupervised control over their regulators. In the end, uninstalling the RECLAIM program is flawed. More is needed from these polluting industries, whose adaptation times are too long and too time-consuming. However, as we move into a new chapter in the Air Zone, the agency is making big strides towards meaningful reductions and heading towards its mission of purifying the air and protecting the health of all residents. World justice will continue in this war alongside the communities that have been forced to breathe the polluted air that has been illegal for too long.
Hear From Our Partners
“The Air District has spent years blaming the lack of progress in tackling airborne smog. In reality, it was based on a dangerous pollution trade scheme that allowed tons of nitrogen oxide pollution in one of the country’s most polluted areas, costing people’s lives. We hope that the Air Zone has learned from its fatal mistake and implemented aggressive industrial pollution control standards going forward.” – Maya Golden-Krasner, deputy director of the Center for Biodiversity Climate Law Institute
- “Finally, we are on track to do what the failed RECLAIM pollution trading program hasn’t done in over 20 years. – Reducing Oxides of Nitrogen in oil refineries and other polluting facilities by millions of pounds per year. These emissions affect people’s breathing, exacerbate asthma and create all that smoke. Removing the RECLAIM scheme would provide some justice for communities like Wilmington, which are most exposed due to their close proximity to refineries.” – Alicia Rivera, Wilmington Community Organizer, Communities for a Better Environment
This blog was originally published on November 3, 2021. It has since been updated to reflect events.