Air Board History

By Published On: July 5, 2007

As I read the thousands of words pouring forth in the state’s newspapers in the past week on the departure of the top leaders at the California Air Resources Board, I could not help but remember the past or be surprised by the media’s naiveté. Among the many pedestrian implications splashed in ink were that no governor had previously meddled in the affairs of the “independent” air board, or by implication in the matters of other independent boards in California dealing with air pollution. The other major fallacy that stuck in my craw was the notion that it is unusual for governors, agency heads, and lawmakers to bend the facts to maintain their images in prepared statements. My realpolitick view is not intended as a criticism of either the sacked Air Board chair Robert Sawyer or its former executive director Catherine Witherspoon, but mostly of the media. For a quick review of history reveals these contentions to be ignorant at best, if not as laughable as they are concocted to spin the story. After all, the notion that the Air Board is above politics is a myth that has been carefully cultivated for public consumption since the organization was founded. Governor Ronald Reagan, who signed the legislation forming the Air Board, went over the head of his chair, the so-called “father of smog” Arie J. Haagen-Smit, to correspond directly with automakers. The governor wanted to see if Detroit needed more time to meet California’s deadline for installing catalytic converters on cars. Reagan also appeared to treat the Cal Tech scientist with a grain of salt. When Haagen-Smit once advised the Great Communicator that Los Angeles could not tolerate anymore large power plants or energy projects due to its smog problem an impatient Reagan replied with the non-sequitur “I raise horses for a living” as he rose to thank him for his advice. Reagan, it seemed, was thinking of other things than his constituents’ lungs. Instead, he would focus on a panicked public stuck in gas lines throughout the state. The lines were the result of an Arab oil embargo in 1973 which was threatening to disrupt the never-ending progress he had promoted on behalf of General Electric as host of The GE Theater television show. Reagan ignored the great scientist’s advice and went on to pressure state bureaucrats to make way for a “super-port” so petroleum companies could land Alaskan North Slope crude in Los Angeles. Governor Jerry Brown—said to keep a copy of Small is Beautiful on his desk, a tract by English economist E.F. Schumacher on the dangers of runaway growth and the virtues of living within limits—appointed his campaign manager, Tom Quinn, to head the Air Board. Quinn admitted that he knew little about air pollution, but decided one day when walking with his son under a smog-filled Los Angeles sky that heading the board would be a way to meaningfully contribute to future generations. Together, the pair killed at least one super-port proposal, raking it over the hot coals of endless environmental analysis. True, Quinn was no scientist like Haagen-Smit. Unlike the patient and tediously thorough Sawyer, he had little patience for hearings that wore on into the night. Instead, when the consummate news reporter chaired the board he was eager to call for the vote in time to make the live shot on the 5 o’clock news and hand the heads of Detroit or the oil industry on a platter to the breathers in Los Angeles. Later with the help of his air board chair John Dunlap, Governor Pete Wilson named a string of appointees to the South Coast Air Quality Management District board who tried to terminate its executive officer Jim Lents for being too tough on air pollution. They were worried Lents was hurting small businesses. None of the appointees were confirmed by the Legislature because they knew little about air pollution. Governor Gray Davis would have his California Environmental Protection Agency secretary Winston Hickox take over the show from the Air Board on how to deal with the gasoline additive MTBE. The Air Board had ordered refineries to add it to the state’s gasoline to clean up the air, but it leaked from tanks and contaminated drinking water on a widespread basis. Legislators also have been known to intervene in the affairs of the independent Air Board. A spat between Latino and some African American Democratic lawmakers and Davis’ chair Alan Lloyd over the state’s electric vehicle mandate helped make Lloyd a guilty party in the recent documentary flick Who Killed the Electric Car. The air board, which already had been sued over the standard by automakers, pulled the plug on the electric car after the lawmakers threatened to cut off its funding. Throughout it all, governors, lawmakers, and Air Board executives, for the most part, just smiled for the cameras and masked their grudges and the magnitude of the real issues in their self-serving prepared statements, aimed at reassuring the public that all was well. True, much progress has been made, but Californians continue to hack and wheeze and thousands a year die from the air pollution that countless clean air laws, plans, rules, and executive orders were supposed to have cleaned up decades ago. The executive officers and chairs at the Air Resources Board have come and gone, as have the governors and elected officials. All the while, though, the enemy has remained the same: cultural values, population growth, economic growth, and the limits of technology and human good graces. Now, the story promises to be much the same with global warming, despite the legislative mandates, declining emissions caps, and the beaming smile of the governor on the news magazines. Just like in the 1940s with air pollution, the work of reducing greenhouse gas emissions is getting off to an early start in California. And just like the war on smog, it promises to take generations. Many of the same themes are under debate: – Whether to wait for technology or push people to change their values, behavior, and expectations; – How much is reasonable to spend on the problem; – How far can regulators push their legal authority; – Who makes money and who loses it; and – Fear among elected officials and administrators of causing panic and backlash if they speak too frankly about any of these matters. (Air pollution in California was not squarely acknowledged as a health threat until well into the 1970s, some thirty years after it became a public concern.) Meanwhile, in the heat of legislative sessions, regulatory timelines, and news deadlines, politicians and government administrators will come and go. Sawyer and Witherspoon surely will not be the last. Likewise, throughout it all, the officials entrusted with carrying out the state’s climate change law are unlikely to provide more than a rare glimpse of what is going on behind the scenes, like they did this past week. Instead, expect them to get back to the spin and process next week as they work to maintain the fiction that massive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved both quickly and painlessly.

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