Editorial: Clean air incentives work

California’s smog prevention agency last week approved a wide-ranging plan to cut air pollution at state ports 40 percent below 2001 levels, even as the amount of goods entering California is expected to triple in 15 years.

The Air Resources Board says approximately 2,400 Californians die prematurely each year from illnesses related to excess diesel emissions from ships, locomotives, trucks, harbor craft and cargo-handling equipment involved in goods transportation throughout the state. The agency believes its $10 billion plan will ultimately help save more than 1,500 lives yearly and reduce public health expenses by $47 billion.

The next step is for agency staff to prepare a set of draft regulations for approval by the full board before the end of the year. With millions of Bay Area residents living in proximity to local ports, we all have much to gain if those air pollution reductions truly take place.

What seems particularly intriguing about the Air Resources Board’s latest plan is that it recommends a combination of new anti-pollution regulations plus business incentives to make it practical for ship owners, railroads and trucking companies to quickly adopt cleaner fuel, engines and procedures.

As a general rule, when new anti-pollution requirements go under consideration, affected corporations can be expected to point out that the expenses of upgrading to cleaner standards put them at a disadvantage against out-of-state or overseas competition. But offering market-based incentives such as equipment subsidies or lowered taxes would seem to largely overcome such objections.

T.L. Garrett, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, urged the Air Resources Board to concentrate first on market-based incentives. He called such incentives a proven, effective way of encouraging corporations to become early adopters of improved anti-pollution technology without suffering a competitive disadvantage.

“Market-based incentives are very viable,” Garrett said. “They are an elegant and brilliant approach to making positive changes.” He singled out the Carl Moyer Memorial Air Quality Standards Attainment Program of subsidizing diesel equipment upgrades as a prime example.

Moyer was an environmental scientist who convinced the state government that California air would become cleaner more rapidly if businesses could obtain grants making their anti-pollution investments cost-neutral. The program began in 1999 and has been renewed by Gov. Schwarzenegger for $140 million yearly.

“California is fortunate to have a thriving economy and to serve as a national gateway for goods movement,” said Dr. Robert Sawyer, the Air Resources Board chairman. “We also need to address the problems that accompany this growth. I am confident this can be done in a way that maintains a healthy economy for California.”

Of course it will take more than positive words to seriously reduce port pollution without impacting the state’s economy. But a sensible attitude by both sides makes a good start for practical air cleanup.

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