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Q&A: California needs more local carbon offsets

05 Jun 2017 20:24 (+01:00 GMT)
Q&A: California needs more local carbon offsets

San Francisco, 5 June (Argus) — Veronica Eady is the assistant executive officer for environmental justice at the California Air Resources Board (ARB), where she serves as the primary agency contact for communities concerned about air pollution. In this interview, edited for length and clarity, Eady discusses her role in helping shape the agency's strategy to meet 2030 greenhouse gas emissions targets.

The environmental justice officer is a new position at the ARB, where you started earlier this year. What are your responsibilities?

I was hired at ARB to head up their environmental justice work and to show the commitment of the agency from the highest levels. We do have a number of people here who work on environmental justice issues across the many programs we have, but there was not really a senior-level person to think strategically about what our environmental justice work should be and how it should look going forward.

My job is many-fold. I like to talk about it one way as taking stock of everything that ARB has done around environmental justice issues over the last 15 or more years and knit it together into a narrative that makes sense and bring some cohesion to it. For many years, though we have been engaged in environmental justice work — which, by the way, gets escalated year-by-year — we were an agency that has worked historically in siloes.

Beyond that, I get to be forward-looking and put together a strategic plan that maps out where we want to be in terms of our environmental justice work, what positions do we want to stake, what relationships to we want to have in partnership with communities, what goals we want to achieve, and then laying out the pathway for how we get there.

During your first months on the job, what have you learned about the ARB that you would like to change?

One immediate critique that I have of our work is that it has got to be integrated. We have to leverage each other in our work and we also need to leverage our relationships and protect those relationships.

We have some people here who are really beloved by community groups and really respected. If I am going to go into a community where an ARB staffer is beloved and respected, and they do not know me from Adam, I most definitely want to take advantage of that established relationship. We have not done very well in that kind of thing.

Your work places you at the intersection of climate change and environmental justice — both very hot topics in California. How are you navigating those intertwined issues?

ARB is a big agency. With my colleagues inside the agency, I often lead with, "I have no idea how much I do not know."

While I think that I know a body of work that I have been really involved in, or a particular division, I am constantly meeting people who are completely new to me and want to brief me on the great work that they are planning to do and they want my input on it.

On the one hand, I do feel like my fluency around ARB and our work has grown substantially. Just this morning, I had a meeting with a team of people that I had never seen before, and they told about some really terrific monitoring work that they are going to do. I feel pretty good about where I am and what I know, but I am never so bold as to think that I know everything.

What is your top priority?

I am very much focused on the scoping plan that we are working on under AB 32. I jumped in midstream and started drinking from a firehose. I would imagine that, between now and the end of June, I am going to be spending a good deal of time there.

As you may know, we have an environmental justice advisory committee, which was created under AB 32. They advise us on all things AB 32. I would say my immediate priority is to become familiar with what they are recommending that we do and to try to incorporate what we can into the scoping plan.

To give you an example of how I am thinking: cap-and-trade is clearly something where I am going to be spending a lot of time. AB 197 required us to achieve direct emissions reductions at local emissions sources. I want to think about how we can take seriously all of the really great advice we have gotten from environmental justice stakeholders and implement those ideas. It includes us developing metrics to track how much pollution we have been able to reduce in disadvantaged communities. Those are the things that take up a lot of my brain power.

Some industries regulated under cap-and-trade argue that proposals backed by the environmental justice community would erode the fundamentals of the carbon market and make it much more difficult to do business here. How would you respond to those concerns?

As I said earlier, we have AB 197. AB 197 addresses direct emissions in local communities and requires us to improve the data that we collect at those facilities.

Beyond that, as I have said to environmental justice groups when I have met with them and they have expressed their displeasure with cap-and-trade, the battleground for that is really at the capital.

Let's talk carbon offsets. Critics say they allow facilities to avoid direct emissions, while proponents say they provide environmental benefits and jobs. What do you see as the role of carbon offsets going forward?

I have read some of the reports that are out there. It is clear to me that we need to have more offsets in California.

Greenhouse gas emissions are global and that would argue for offsets to be located anywhere, so I understand the reasoning behind that. But I do think that it is important for us to have more offsets in California and to really demonstrate that we are listening to local communities and we want to help make their communities a lot healthier and more vibrant.

You are the former chair of EPA's federal advisory committee for environmental justice and worked for a number of years on the east coast. How are California's environmental justice issues different?

Interestingly, they are very different, which is something that is surprising to me. Here in California, environmental justice groups are very focused on freight and ports and making those ports cleaner so that they are not such a burden on the communities that live around them. On the east coast, some of the communities that I was working with were really concerned about legacy pollution. There are a lot more landfill issues and waste issues and I think that is in part because it is much denser and people have been settled there for a lot longer.

In my short time here at ARB, I have observed that the environmental justice community is very powerful and tightly linked to certain progressive politicians in the legislature. While there are definitely legislative champions on the east coast, this environmental justice community wields a lot of power — that is refreshing. California leads the country on so many levels, and I think that we are doing the same with environmental justice activism.