Who should pay for pollution?

Recent study by American Lung Association finds that 80% of Californians are still at risk from unhealthy air. Opponents to clean air claim the “right” to pollute in ongoing litigation.
Image Source: Flickr, San Bernardino Valley, 2009

It’s pretty clear we have to limit pollution. This week the American Lung Association released their “State of the Air Report” finding that 80% of Californians are still at risk from unhealthy air, despite decades of effort and significant progress. Climate-destabilizing air pollution is harming our state in countless ways, from the Sierra to the Central Valley to the coastline. Given the high cost of pollution, who should pay and take responsibility when it occurs? Should the responsibility primarily be with polluting companies, or should the costs be borne by society at large?

California has been regulating conventional air pollutants for decades, but has only recently started regulating climate pollutants that not only warm our planet but also worsen and are otherwise directly linked to sources of local air pollution.

Many businesses in California are good corporate citizens on this issue. They accept that pollution imposes a cost on society. They even appreciate the flexible, cost-effective approach California regulators have adopted of capping carbon pollution and allowing regulated businesses to trade “allowances,” so pollution can be reduced in the least expensive way possible.

This support is most often demonstrated quietly, through actions like consistently meeting obligations under the cap-and-trade program, engaging constructively at workshops to strengthen the program, and most importantly by not obstructing progress in the courts and the halls of government.

Groups seeking free allowances or to avoid regulation altogether have spent millions on campaigns and lobbying.

But others, like those represented by the California Chamber of Commerce and the Pacific Legal Foundation, are delaying efforts to clean up our air — seemingly arguing that they have a right to pollute for free. They are challenging California’s practice of auctioning some carbon allowances and using the revenue to further reduce carbon pollution.

This litigation has been dragging on for years, ever since the CalChamber filed its suit on the eve of the first cap-and-trade auction in 2012. The Pacific Legal Foundation didn’t file until the next spring. Both lawsuits were filed too late to stop the auctions from taking place, but were just in time to insert doubt and opponent’s views about their right to pollute for free into California’s historic effort to regulate carbon pollution. Back in 2013, a trial court rejected claims that auctions were illegal. But these challengers were not dissuaded, they appealed and the case is still pending.

Failing so far in court, those seeking to pollute for free are attempting to take their case to the court of public opinion after the appellate court asked for supplemental briefing in the case. The appellate court has asked both parties to answer several questions. While the court is giving careful attention to this important issue, opponents are cynically using op-eds and other media stories to plead their case for why polluting should be free.

Groups seeking free allowances or to avoid regulation altogether have spent millions on campaigns and lobbying. The California Legislature is likely the ultimate audience for this effort. Bills to provide free allowances or exempt some polluters have been proposed before but have never gotten any traction.

California has been successfully regulating harmful climate pollutants for over three years now. And holding polluters accountable for some of the cost that society bears is an integral part of the state’s strategy. Hopefully legislators will continue to see this current round of rhetoric for the self-serving ploy that it is.

This entry was posted in California, Emissions trading & markets. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.