2015: The year in notable air quality matters

Wow. What a busy year!

It began, basically, on a high note. America’s first high-speed rail program commenced, an official and memorable groundbreaking taking place on Jan. 6th in a non-descript location on an industrial site in downtown Fresno, California, although, actual construction did not get underway until Jun. 16th on a viaduct that will carry trains of great speed over Raymond Road, the Fresno River, California State Route 145 and an irrigation canal in Madera County. The mechanized equipment being used in the construction work is among the cleanest-burning found anywhere, which makes this project Air-Quality-Matters-noteworthy.

320px-Los_Angeles_Basin_JPLLandsat[1]In late April, the American Lung Association released its 16th annual “State of the Air” report. The same cities, many of which are located in the Golden State (where the high-speed rail line is being built), continue to maintain their place as this nation’s leading bad-air troublespots for both ozone (smog) and fine particulate matter (soot) in both the day-long (24-hour) and annual categories; Bakersfield, Fresno, Modesto and Visalia in the San Joaquin Valley and Los Angeles in the South Coast Air Basin regions consistently rank among the top five “hot spots” in the country for dirty air. Throughout the U.S. overall, 200 million Americans are at times exposed to unhealthful levels of air pollution.

The big news item this summer was that President Obama announced his commitments to clean up emissions at the nation’s power plants through what has come to be known as the Clean Power Plan as well as to cut emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) across the country by between 26 and 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. A similar pledge was made by China, the world’s biggest GHG emitter, its target year being 2030.

On Sept. 18th, the news broke about the Volkswagen diesel-vehicle exhaust emissions testing “defeat device” scandal, with as many as 11 million 2009 to 2015 model-year automobiles expected to be recalled worldwide. Diesel-vehicle oxides of nitrogen (NOx) emissions on violating vehicles were found to be anywhere from nine to 40 times above the allowable limits depending upon make and model tested. As of this writing, a comprehensive fix has not been determined nor have any affected vehicles been recalled. It is estimated that this misstep could cost the company as much as $7.3 billion (€6.7 billion).

In a more positive vein, on Oct. 1st, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a new standard for both primary and secondary ozone set at 70 parts per billion (ppb) of air. The Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) and others, namely, environmentalists and environment groups, were calling for an even tighter requirement (as low as 60 ppb) because of the view that the 70 ppb standard – down from 75 ppb – was not public-health-protective enough. Manufacturing and business concerns, meanwhile, argue that even the 70 ppb standard will hurt business, fearing job losses, etc.

Later that month, moreover, the president denied further advance of the Keystone XL pipeline citing reasons that development of the pipeline from the U.S.-Canadian border to Texas-based Gulf Coast refineries would not be in the U.S.’s best interest both in the economic and environmental senses. What this means is that oil derived from the Alberta tar-sands region of Canada will need to be transported by alternative means which is taken to mean by rail and/or by existing pipelines built for this purpose already.

Hurricane Sandy
Hurricane Sandy

The long-anticipated 21st annual Conference of the Parties (COP-21) talks on climate change and global warming in Paris, France, got off to a highly constructive start on Nov. 30th. The conference proceedings had a few rough spots here and there, but, overall, the U.N. Climate Change Conference was pretty much turbulence free. And, on Sat., Dec. 12th (today), a really long-awaited agreement was reached and, among 195 nations, no less. Historic and unprecedented! Now the real work begins to reduce emissions in an effort to prevent further degradation of the air and global mean-temperature rise. There was no bigger emissions-related news story in 2015 than this.

Meanwhile, back on Dec. 4th, President Obama signed a new 5-year bill to fund national transportation. In all, $305 billion will be divided among roadway, railway, bicycling, walking projects, predominantly, the bulk of the funding designated for roadways, with far lesser amounts directed to the remainder.

Monumental and magnanimous is that both houses of Congress were able to work across the aisle and reach agreement and that a long-term plan was arrived at and approved. Less than earthshaking, on the other hand, was that this bill differs little from previous, similar bills, whether long-term or short.


Related to U.S. transportation spending, as it stands, with somewhere around 27 percent of contributed greenhouse gases being land-based-transportation sourced and, concerning the funding-distribution pie, knowing what will be going to roadways and what rail and active transportation modes (biking and walking) will receive, it is difficult to picture what if any air quality gains will be forthcoming as it pertains to emissions reductions within the land-based-transportation realm, especially taking into account growth in population.

That said, it is imperative to invest dollars where the most good will be done. Much more will be known on that front in five years when the present bill is set to expire.

Images (two): NASA

Published by Alan Kandel