Bipartisan legislators agree to reform CARB (California Air Resources Board)

ampoule arial, salve sans-serif;”>By Eric Eisenhammer

One of the most significant and underreported victories of Friday’s close of the legislative session was that a last-minute reform of the California Air Resources Board (CARB) was approved. Although the bill the Legislature will now send to the Governor’s desk is very limited in scope, this is the first time a need for CARB reform has been broadly acknowledged by the Legislature.

The Sacramento Bee reported:

The proposal would add two members, appointed by legislative leaders, to a board that currently consists of 12 members appointed by the governor. The two additional members would be required to be people who work directly with low-income, minority or other groups most vulnerable to high levels of pollution.

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CARB is the only state-level clean air agency in the country and has a budget of $650 million annually. Its members are not elected, but appointed by the Governor. Up until Friday’s proposed reform, the Governor has been the only one who can fire CARB board members, so if legislators or voters dislike their actions, there’s been nothing anybody can do about it. Now, at least two members of CARB’s board will answer to the Legislature.

CARB is one of California’s most powerful agencies, with devastating consequences for small independent trucking companies and for motorists in general, who must pay CARB a 10 – 15 cent hidden gas tax as part of the agency’s opaque carbon-trading system. This system is managed by a Delaware-based corporation that is wholly owned by CARB and specifically exempted from state open meeting laws by the Legislature.

The agency is so powerful that its Chair, Mary Nichols, has been ranked the third most powerful unelected figure in California state politics by the Sacramento-based Capitol Weekly, which releases a yearly 100 “most influential” list of the state’s top lobbyists, members of the media, mega-donors and political insiders.

As CARB has grown in power over the years, many legislative Democrats have helped to shield the agency from accountability. This in itself is troubling because Democrats often present themselves as champions of the people against the powerful, and especially the working class and marginalized communities. The official website of the national Democratic Party states:

There are several core beliefs that tie our party together: Democrats believe that we’re greater together than we are on our own—that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules. Our party, led by President Obama, is focused on building an economy that lifts up all Americans, not just those at the top.

However, after a joint legislative committee indicated there should be an audit of how CARB spent $57 million in cap and trade implementation funds, a proposal to carry out the audit was blocked by Democrats on a State Senate committee.

Hopefully the recently passed reform signals a newfound willingness by Democrats to hold CARB accountable. CARB has certainly given all Californians many reasons to believe the agency operates with impunity. Among those not already mentioned:

  • CARB based regulations currently devastating the state trucking industry on a diesel particulate matter study authored by a researcher who falsified his credentials. “Dr.” Hien Tran was found to have received his phony degree from Thornhill University, which does not exist. The CARB board member that raised questions about this is no longer on the board but Hien Tran was never fired.
  • Diesel filters required by CARB have been installed on trucks and buses, including school buses, at a cost of about $20,000 each. Truckers and bus drivers say the filters make their trucks break down more frequently and pose a fire hazard. After two related fires from the filters, one of which burned 3600 acres in Oregon and caused $5.2 million in damages, CARB’s favored filter manufacturer, Cleaire Advanced Emission Controls, issued a recall and then filed for bankruptcy.
  • CARB once proposed punishing people with jail and a $1,000 fine for declining a check and inflate service when they receive a tune up.  CARB retracted the proposal after widespread public opposition.
  • CARB lost a lawsuit brought by civil rights advocates who alleged the agency had steamed forward with plans to implement a cap and trade program without bothering to seriously consider any other options. Later, when the state’s respected Legislative Analysts Office noted that the agency’s planned cap and trade taxes were unnecessary to meet state carbon reduction goals, CARB simply ignored the LAO and imposed the taxes anyway.

An absence of accountability tends to cause just exactly the kind of issues described above. The Legislature’s recent acknowledgement that CARB reform is necessary is a step in the right direction. However, much more needs to be done to rein in this unaccountable bureaucracy. Perhaps now is an appropriate time for us to have a conversation about making CARB an elected body, such as our state’s Board of Equalization.

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eric.eisenhammerEric Eisenhammer is the founder of the Coalition of Energy Users, a nonprofit grassroots organization for access to affordable energy and quality jobs.

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