FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, DECEMBER 17, 2010, OR THEREAFTER
BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
“TIME FOR SOME NEW BLOOD AT THE AIR BOARD”
“Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.” – Julius Caesar, 62 B.C.
Julius Caesar, the Roman general and ruler, made that statement while divorcing his wife Pompeia when she was accused of having an affair with his colleague, Clodius Pulcher, a charge that was never proved.
If there’s one California agency that perpetually needs to be as pure as Caesar’s wife, it is the Air Resources Board, whose huge powers have made its 11 mostly anonymous members among the most nationally influential of California officials.
Until very recently, there’s been no reason to doubt the purity of the ARB. Its actions have reduced smog levels and smog alerts around the state by well over one-third since 1960 even as California gained about 15 million residents.
ARB policies caused the creation of automotive catalytic converters and industrial smokestack scrubbers, two innovations now in use almost everywhere in the world. Without the board’s demands for ever-lower pollution levels, there would be no Toyota Prius, Chevrolet Volt or any other kind of hybrid car. This is one board that has been steadfast in its purpose for 50 years, no matter whether the sitting governor has been a Republican or a Democrat.
A fundament of the ARB’s highly-respected national stature has been that it’s almost never wrong on the facts. When it said various smog control devices could be installed on cars and trucks, its estimates of both auto prices and how much pollution would be cut proved correct despite the fact that carmakers and other industries always claimed they were inaccurate and resisted those advances at every turn.
One reason the ARB could be so steadfast is that the smoggiest areas of California also tend to be the most politically conservative. So even politicians from mostly-Republican inland areas generally support smog restrictions and GOP governors have had to heed the desire of inland residents for cleaner air.
That’s what makes the air board’s problems of this fall so serious. For if it is to enjoy public support in enforcing the 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act just ratified by the voters as they rejected Proposition 23 last month, and if it is to enjoy continued public support while it encourages introduction of plug-in hybrids and electric cars, the ARB must be seen as clean and utterly reliable.
But questions arise when some of its pollution estimates are off by as much as 300 percent, as with its recent estimates of how much diesel fuel is burned in California and how much pollution it produces. Those flawed estimates were used to force operators of diesel-powered trucks, off-road vehicles, seaport and airport machinery and others to retrofit engines or replace them with newer models producing far less oxides of nitrogen and particulate matter.
The errors were discovered and the board’s rules placed in abeyance only because an outside researcher found information that was also readily available to the ARB’s staff – but apparently either went unseen or was misconstrued.
Then there’s the concurrent charge that the ARB was behind a UCLA decision to deny distinguished epidemiologist James Enstrom reappointment as a researcher in its School of Public Health after 34 years there. Enstrom is the author of a report finding that no evidence exists to support the idea that particulates from diesel exhaust kill anyone, contrary to an ARB finding of 18,000 premature deaths.
Enstrom’s layoff notice claimed his work suddenly – after all those years – “did not align” with the mission of his department, but said nothing about his diesel finding.
These things have cast a cloud of questioning over the ARB, with many – especially climate change skeptics – claiming the agency has a predetermined, facts-be-damned agenda.
All this really revolves only around a small part of the ARB’s functions, but it’s being used to tar the board’s entire body of work. That means it may be time to get some new board members for the ARB. Chances are Gov.-elect Jerry Brown will not depose current chair Mary Nichols, a UCLA professor who also served on the board the last time Brown was governor in the late 1970s and early ‘80s and was later deputy chief of the federal Environmental Protection Agency in the Clinton Administration. Their ties are too longstanding. But that does not apply to other board members.
Nichols and her current colleagues have done little or nothing to dispel the current doubts hanging over the ARB. Since its work is so influential and so vital to the health of Californians, that means the time may be right for at least some of them to go – for the sake of keeping this board the world’s leading smog control agency.
Email Thomas Elias at email@example.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net