The Senate Rules Committee debated several of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s appointments to the Air Resources Board (CARB) during a hearing last week. While each of the appointees garnered broad support, lawmakers raised general concerns about gaps in the board’s oversight that have led to rising regulatory costs for communities of color as well as low-income and rural communities.
Acting Board Chair Liane Randolph, who previously served as a commissioner on the California Public Utilities Commission, began by emphasizing her priorities for environmental justice and engaging regularly with affected communities. This follows outcry from environmental groups last year against Randolph’s predecessor, Mary Nichols, over concerns CARB overlooked these communities in its policies. This, in turn, led the Biden administration to drop Nichols from consideration as U.S. EPA secretary.
“CARB has been growing over the years in terms of its ability to work with environmental justice communities, but we still absolutely have a long way to go,” said Randolph. “I'm hoping that at the end of the day, even if we don't agree on everything, they do feel heard and feel that they have fully participated in the process.”
Republican Sen. Shannon Grove of Bakersfield steered the conversation toward the burdens that CARB’s regulations have presented to the farmers, oil producers and rural communities in her San Joaquin Valley district.
Grove pointed out that it takes her nearly six hours to drive across her district, comparing it to one densely populated Senate district in Los Angeles that covers just 26 blocks. She felt CARB’s regulations on vehicle miles traveled unfairly penalize farming communities, which often cannot afford electric vehicles.
Grove also pushed back on farmers having to continually replace expensive equipment—after just four years in some cases—to meet CARB’s evolving air quality mandates.
“Putting the Central Valley out of business from growing food not only affects the food supply here in California, but the food supply for the world,” said Grove. “We are trying everything we can to help meet the climate goals that are set forth.”
She saw Dr. Tania Pacheco-Werner, another new board appointee, as “somebody who's going to look at things from both sides of the spectrum, and not be an activist on the board.” When CARB was debating a ban on all open burning in the San Joaquin Valley, Pacheco-Werner pushed back on calls for more monitoring of illegal burns, arguing those resources should instead be put toward investing in tools to help farmers find alternatives to burning.
“One-size-fits-all doesn't work,” said Pacheco-Werner at the hearing Wednesday. “I appreciate that the Central Valley is much different than the Bay Area.”
The Senate Rules Committee also approved the reappointment of Dr. John Balmes, who was among the members leading the charge on the burn ban.
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Balmes has led CARB’s efforts with the AB 617 community emissions reduction program and hoped to continue to “reduce hotspots of pollution that negatively impact the health of low-income communities of color” if reappointed. AB 617 has raised controversy in Fresno County after several environmental advocates in the local steering committee pushed the state toward expanding a pesticide air monitoring network and removing incentives grants for dairies from the reduction plan. AB 617 has grown to include 15 communities across the state, with several more under consideration, though funding has been in flux as the cap-and-trade revenues seeding the program have become unreliable as the market matures.
Balmes, who studies the respiratory effects of ambient air pollutants, said he has been doing research in the San Joaquin Valley for 20 years.
“While I'm trying to learn about the health effects of air pollution, I've also learned a lot about the economy of the San Joaquin Valley, both Fresno and Kern County,” said Balmes. “I'm a proponent of environmental justice, but I also don't want to break the California economy.”
Balmes later shared that he felt reinvigorated by Randolph’s more inclusive leadership and her drive to build consensus among board members, a departure from Nichols.
“Because [Nichols] was such a well-established leader in the field, we did tend to fall in line maybe more often than not,” said Balmes.
Board appointee Davina Hurt harkened back to her youth growing up alongside Texas farms in a rural community outside of Dallas and an epidemic of asthma rates in the region, which drives what she sees as a “need to do things differently.”
Newsom also appointed Los Angeles lawyer Gideon Kracov, who served on the local air quality board overseeing some of California’s largest ports.
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