There's much to be admired in the bloc of Midwestern Senators known to prioritize manfacturing interests swinging to support green jobs and clean energy policies. They have a lot of suggestions that, if included, would improve energy and trade policy for the whole country. But they also want one thing that seems simply irresponsible: for federal emission standards to preempt stronger state emission standards.
In translation, this is the car and oil companies, long-time buddies, striking back against (mainly) California's strict emission standards. Because the California car market leads the country, their emission standards effectively raise the bar higher for all states, because it would be too costly to manufacture one set of cars that can be sold in California (as well as the 15 other states that enforce California emission standards) and another to be sold in other states.
Why are California's emission standards so different? It has at least a little to do with Los Angeles' air quality, which is terrible.
Los Angeles, mind, has had air quality problems for as long as people have lived there. The Native American name for the Los Angeles basin was "valley of the smoke", as the ring of mountains surrounding it traps particulates over the valley. Now, that trapped air includes car exhaust, industrial exhaust, construction dust, and all other sort of nasty, horrible things. Most of the time growing up there, if I could see the horizon, I could see the unnatural yellow-brown of the city's permasmog blanket. Other times, the brownish tinge farther up, yea, nearly unto the peak of mid-heaven.
And you could say, well, it's just one city. Okay, it is. But a city isn't a standard unit of measure any more than a state is a standard unit of measure. These terms define political boundaries, not land area or population density.
Los Angeles County, which sits in a valley of smoke, is home to 9.8 million people who have to breathe that air. So says 2008 Census Bureau data. Sen. Stabenow's entire State of Michigan, as of the Census Bureau's 2009 data, holds 9.9 million people. Sen. Brown's entire State of Ohio, as of 2009 again, holds 11.5 million.
Though like I mentioned, Los Angeles is only part of it. I've read a number of things over the years about what pollution does to the lungs of children and adults in southern California, which includes two major international shipping ports (Los Angeles, San Diego,) several major airports, loads of oil refineries (including in Los Angeles,) one of the country's largest grocery distribution hubs (Los Angeles) and many of the worst excesses of car culture, among other transportation and industrial sources, but this 2004 article should do to illustrate the lifelong damage this pervasive pollution does to area residents. Emphasis mine:
... In the longest study to date of pollution's impact on developing lungs, University of Southern California researchers followed children raised in communities around Los Angeles - some very polluted, some not - for eight years.
They found about 8 percent of 18-year-olds had lung capacity less than 80 percent of normal, compared with about 1.5 percent of those in communities with the least pollution.
... The Los Angeles metro area has the country's worst year-round fine particle pollution, and Bakersfield, Fresno and other California cities also are among the 10 worst, according to the American Lung Association. Other metropolitan areas on that list include Pittsburgh, Detroit, Atlanta, Cleveland and Birmingham, Ala.
The lung capacity of children raised in the most-polluted communities grew by about 100 milliliters less over the eight years, compared to children in the least-polluted areas, said lead researcher James Gauderman, associate professor of preventive medicine at USC's Keck School of Medicine. ...
As the article goes on to relate, young people who neither smoked nor had asthma still had their lungs damaged at the same rate. Further, even if this didn't cause immediate health problems, reduced lung capacity has been shown to increase the risk of premature death and the likelihood of health complications when people get to their 40s and 50s.
By 2009, American Lung Association reports on the latest pollution numbers showed Los Angeles ranked #1 in the country for ozone pollution, with five other California cities joining it in the top 10. Bakersfield is now #1 in particulate pollution, with four other California cities, including Los Angeles, joining it in the top 10. Emphasis in the original:
... [Ozone pollution] is created by tailpipe emissions that get cooked by the sun and heat and form triple molecules of oxygen, which is much less stable than conventional oxygen and much more damaging to respiratory systems.
Los Angeles, which has a lethal combination of heavy traffic, sunshine and heat, had 195 days last year in which the ozone levels were high enough to be unhealthy for sensitive groups. On another 55 days, it was unhealthy for anyone and on 11 days, the ozone in the air was judged as very unhealthy. ...
So even now, even with emission standards tougher than those of the federal government, California has a major public health crisis stemming from its air pollution, caused in large part by transportation exhaust. California, with about 11 percent of the total US population, suffering deeply from budget, real estate and unemployment crises, is being asked by Senators individually representing barely more people than live in its largest city to accept even worse health for all its residents.
This is cruel and unconscionable.
My mother used to tell me stories about how, when she was small, her mom would give her and her brothers each a nickel and send them off to the movies on the trolley. Yes, Los Angeles used to have a clean, safe, well-functioning streetcar system which US auto companies were fined by the government for conspiring to destroy, a treatment meted out to cities and towns across the country in the name of expanded market share. Streetcars that were replaced with a fleet of what were, when I was a teenager, truly nasty and unreliable buses that my mom never wanted us to use.
That development did not affect all communities equally.
California is now working to implement a law that would mandate pollution levels be rolled back to 1990 levels by 2020. A law, AB 32, which various business groups and oil companies have been fighting, but low-income communities have been embracing. Pollution sources from oil refineries, to power plants and truck traffic disproportionately affect low-income and minority neighborhoods, which were also found in court to have been underserved by public transit authorities.
Low-income communities in the heavily populated regions of the state, which is home to one in ten US citizens, have therefore been forced to pay the most for the pollution-happy transportation and oil industries, as well as having been historically abandoned by government efforts to implement cleaner public transit that could at least reduce car pollution. They, and other Californians, pay this cost with their health, with their children's health, with their lives.
Preempting California's emission standards, then, not only hurts the health of all its residents, but will make it harder for the cash-strapped state to better protect the health of its most vulnerable residents. No bill that does this can truly be considered 'clean' anything.
I'm going home to the Valley of the Smoke next week for a family visit. Hopefully, I won't be able to see the air. Hopefully, the view when we drive up the Burbank Hills to look out over Olive Blvd. won't include a dodgy, yellow haze. Ha!