Remember Bakersfield in 1992?
The smog was so bad you couldn’t see the Sierra just 15 miles away where it rises abruptly from the valley floor as the Kings River makes it way west.
The air had an acidy smell. I can’t tell you how bad it was to breathe as I only filled up my tank and grabbed a snack before heading toward Death Valley. At the time, however, there was extensive news coverage of how schools in the southern San Joaquin Valley were keeping kids inside at recess and cancelling physical education classes on days when the smog was heavy. Asthma issues in Kern County — especially among young kids and the elderly — were off the charts.
This particular day I’m referencing was a semi-crisp Thanksgiving when I left Manteca where the skies were a tad hazy not from clouds but from air pollution.
Long before the concept of greenhouse gases became in vogue in politically correct arguments about the environment, the Central Valley had a big problem. The valley had gotten to the point where it rivaled the Los Angeles Basin as the worst air quality basin in the country.
The reason was simple. We live in bowl that is 450 miles long and between 40 to 60 miles wide surrounded by the Cascade, Sierra, Tehachapi and Coastal mountain ranges. Pressure systems moving in from the Pacific Ocean create a natural inversion layer that traps particles in our air fairly close to the ground whether it is summer or winter. A case can be made that winters were actually worse. It was made all the more unhealthy by air pollution from the Bay Area blown by wind through the passes and the Delta. Studies showed, however, the impact of the export of Bay Area pollution as the source of air quality issues diminished as you headed south going from a little over 20 percent of the overall problem in San Joaquin County down to less than 10 percent in Kern County.
What turned the tide? Primarily it was addressing pollutants from internal combustion engines. It was done with a combination of things: Reformulated gas, catalytic convertors, and better gas mileage meaning less fuel per mile per vehicle is being used.
Certain ozone pollution has been pushed back to near 1992 levels despite population growing by almost 50 percent in the San Joaquin Valley to more than 4 million.
That said, even the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District — not exactly a bastion of people that contend climate change is not happening — concedes you could take all cars, trucks, construction equipment, and farm vehicles off the road and idle trains and still not meet the federal mandate for valley air quality standards. Then there is the issue of greenhouse gas standards imposed by Sacramento.
But since many of us are talking today about President Trump’s proposal to rollback fleet vehicle mileage goals for auto manufacturers, let’s talk about federal mandates.
The San Joaquin Valley is under the gun from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to meet impossible to attain air quality standards in the next few years or lose federal highway funding.
Trump also wants one uniform fuel mileage requirement. That means the waiver Congress granted California to require stinger vehicle fleet mileage goals is in jeopardy. A dozen other states — including New York — adopt California’s standards to supersede federal standards.
What makes this rich is the federal government has always contradicted itself through edicts handed down from its ever expanding bureaucratic blob.
Downsizing the federal government and reducing questionable regulations as Trump is trying to do is a noble cause that needs to be done. The rethink also requires realistic goals that are weighed against costs — both in terms of dollars and opportunity. You will get no argument from this quarter that the bureaucracy has gone too far in many instances including air quality edicts.
But to unwind the mess requires skilled surgery instead of just wild swings of the ax.
The federal government would need to rollback air standards or drop its air quality mandates in tandem with the vehicle fleet mileage. That’s because everywhere in the United States is not a carbon copy of Bismarck, North Dakota, or cities near the Great Lakes such as Chicago and Detroit that can count on regular winds wedded with flat terrain to clear their air of pollution.
It is an argument for state rights. As for the American auto industry that Trump is inviting to the regulation rethink dance, they should be entitled to sell vehicles in any state where they meet the standards set by that state.
If the one-size fits all approach is the new mantra to deal with interstate commerce, does this mean a national standard for sales tax rates for all transactions is next? It must be hell for the auto industry to deal with not just 50 different sales taxes and rules but in California’s case as many as 400 other ones based on local and county taxes.
You can argue about state versus federal rights and regulations all you want but one thing is clear —“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as an American birthright delineated in the Declaration of Independence is a much healthier endeavor today thanks to the collective effort so far to make breathing easier in the San Joaquin Valley.