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Plan to Improve S. California Air Departs from Traditional Policies

By Marla Cone
Los Angeles Times

Reflecting a strategy billed as more business-friendly and less far-fetched than previous efforts, Southern California's air-quality agency Monday unveiled its newest plan to achieve clean air in the nation's smoggiest region by 2010.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District's plan -- its third in five years -- contains 89 steps proposed for the next 15 years, including 41 that target pollution from industries, 17 from cars and trucks, 10 from off-road transportation such as trains and airliners, and 21 measures to improve traffic patterns.

About one-third of the ideas are new, with an unprecedented focus on credits and other market incentives to encourage local industries to find their own ways to clean up smog.

The agency says the plan, if successfully implemented, would meet federal health standards for every major air pollutant in the region in 16 years, despite a projected 40 percent population increase. A whopping 70 percent of all smog-causing emissions would be eliminated -- about 5 percent each year. "We think that Congress and the Legislature has every reason to be optimistic that we can meet the goals they have set for us," said AQMD Deputy Executive Officer Barry Wallerstein.

For the next three months, businesses, environmentalists, civic leaders and others in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties will comb over the 3-foot-thick draft, with the debate likely to focus on a key point: Where does most of the pain fall? The AQMD is facing pressure to fairly balance the economic burden among big industries and motorists, small businesses and consumers.

The AQMD's governing board is scheduled to vote on the program in July after a series of public hearings. Under federal law, the AQMD and state must have an approved clean-air plan by November.

The basic framework of the plan is familiar. Several dozen rules to be adopted by the AQMD or state ARB would require companies to use the most advanced available technologies to cut emissions from factories, small businesses, cars and fuels.

The plan also sets aggressive goals for use of advanced technology in cars. By 2010, 78 percent of passenger cars would be fueled by methanol or other low-emission fuels, while 22 percent would run on electricity or fuel cells. Enforcing such mandates falls under the jurisdiction of the state Air Resources Board, which is facing unprecedented pressure from the auto industry to scale back its existing rules.

Also included are a trio of fees that are certain to raise howls of protest from motorists -- car registration fees based on miles driven, new taxes on fuel, and freeway tollbooths that would charge motorists during high-congestion hours.

Los Angeles Attorney Robert Wyman, who represents oil and aerospace companies, said local industries will look especially close at whether the proposals are tough enough in getting high-polluting vehicles and solo commuters off the roads. Wyman said he hopes to see some "innovative transportation controls" to help ease the impact on local industries.

Much of the debate about "fair share" of the smog burden focuses on a new state finding that the volume of pollution emitted by cars has been dramatically underestimated. The state Air Resources Board estimates cars emit 60 percent more hydrocarbons and twice as much carbon monoxide than previously thought.

One of the most critical components of the plan -- an analysis of the cost and social impact -- will not be released until late May. In the past, the AQMD estimated that achieving clean air in the Southland will cost $3 billion to $6 billion a year.