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Upheaval at the California Air Resources Board

The off-road regulations are intended to help address these non-attainment areas. Click to enlarge. Source: ARB

The California Air Resources Board (ARB)—the state organization chartered with providing safe, clean air to Californians and thus the group tasked with implementing the state’s advanced air pollution and greenhouse gas regulations—has been in turmoil recently.

Last week, ARB Chairman Dr. Robert Sawyer told the Los Angeles Times that he had been fired by Governor Schwarzenegger for refusing to follow orders to limit the number of immediate greenhouse gas regulations (earlier post), and for refusing to fire Air Resources Board Executive Officer Catherine Witherspoon.

“I was fired, I did not resign...The entire issue is the independence of the board, and that’s why I got fired,” Sawyer said in a telephone interview with The Times.

Sawyer said he had declined to fire the agency’s embattled executive director, Catherine Witherspoon, and objected when his longtime communications director Jerry Martin was also fired, then reassigned to another agency by the governor’s office without notifying him. Finally, last week, he said he was called by a Cabinet secretary who ordered him to limit to three the number of so-called early action measures the board was considering to slow global warming.

...Sawyer, ignoring the order he had received, unsuccessfully sought to persuade fellow board members to add more measures to the list.

The Los Angeles Times linked the upheaval partly to pressure on the Governor’s office from the state’s construction industry over the upcoming issuance of stringent off-road diesel emission rules, still currently under development.

Witherspoon resigned on Monday, 2 July, and charged that the Governor’s top staff had been interfering in favor of industry lobbyists seeking to weaken or stall air pollution regulations, including the state’s landmark global warming law and the proposed regulations for diesel construction equipment and wood products containing formaldehyde.

The Governor’s administration countered that those were the comments of a disgruntled employee. Witherspoon, The Times noted, was an often controversial figure in her 27 years at the Board, particularly after she signed secret agreements with the nation’s largest railroads to voluntarily reduce diesel pollution rather than mandating reductions.

Seeking to quell the uproar, Governor Schwarzenegger (a Republican) today appointed Mary Nichols as the new ARB Chair. Nichols served as ARB Chair 30 years ago under then-Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. (a Democrat). She also served as Secretary of Resources under Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, and as a high-ranking environmental official in the Clinton administration.

...the appointment of Nichols, one of the state’s first environmental attorneys, is likely to blunt complaints from administration critics that Schwarzenegger’s actions on the environment are not living up to his bold promises.

“She’s superb, and she will be an independent person,” [former ARB chair] Sawyer said. “I’ve known Mary for a long time, we’ve served together on the air board, and I would find it hard to think of a better person.”

He said under Nichols’ previous tenure as air board chair, historic regulations were implemented on unleaded gasoline, catalytic converters and other regulations that helped cement the board's reputation as the world’s most innovative and toughest air pollution agency.

The off-road emissions regulations. Nichols will be plunging right in to a number of major issues: the implementation of AB32 (the state’s greenhouse gas limits law); the struggle with the EPA over AB1493 (the implementation of the state’s restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions from light-duty vehicles); and the impending set of regulations for off-road diesel equipment.

The off-road regulations are extremely sensitive issue for the construction industry because of the dramatic changes it would enforce, and because of the costs associated with that change.

The ARB meeting in May, which considered both changes to the ZEV regulations and the impending off-road regulations, spanned two days. The first day was dedicated to ZEV, and saw dozens of electric vehicle advocates attend. (Earlier post.) The second day was primarily focused on the off-road emissions regulations, and drew hundreds opposed to the new regulations to the board meeting, some of whom picketed outside prior to entering. 

Existing off-road diesel vehicles are responsible for nearly 25% of the diesel particulate matter (PM) emissions and nearly a 20% of the oxides of nitrogen (NOx) emissions from mobile diesel sources statewide. These emissions have significant adverse health impacts, according to research cited  by the ARB, including causing an estimated 1,100 premature deaths per year in California.

Under the new regulations, manufacturers of new off-road vehicles will be required to meet strict aftertreatment-based emission standards for PM and NOx beginning in 2011. However, since many off-road vehicles in use today were manufactured before the mid-1990s when the first emission standards took effect, and since some off-road diesel vehicles have an actual life in excess of 30 years, controlling emissions from existing vehicles is essential, according to ARB.

The proposed regulation would require fleet owners to accelerate turnover to cleaner engines and install exhaust retrofits. The regulation would apply to any person, business or government agency that owns or operates diesel-powered off-road vehicles in California (except agriculture) whose engines have a maximum power of 25 horsepower (hp) or greater.

That affects not only the construction industry, but also mining, landscaping, airlines, retail, wholesale, equipment rental, skiing, oil and gas drilling, recycling and utilities.

Under the regulation, diesel PM emissions from existing offroad diesel vehicles would decrease by 92% from the 2000 baseline. The regulation is expected to reduce diesel PM emissions by 5.2 tons per day (tpd) and NOx emissions by 48 tpd in 2020.

The cumulative PM and NOx emissions reductions from 2010 to 2030 are expected to prevent approximately 4,000 premature deaths and tens of thousands of cases of asthma-related and other lower respiratory symptoms.

The ARB estimates that there will be significant health cost savings of $18 to $26 billion over this time period, primarily from avoided premature deaths. ARB estimates the total cost of the regulations is expected to be between $3.0 and $3.4 billion, in 2006 dollars. The state’s construction companies say it could be at least three times that amount.

The ARB will have another public meeting on the off-road regulations on 26 July.




If the people destined for those 4,000 premature deaths and tens of thousands of asthma-related problems new who they were in advance, then they'd be making a louder noise than those picketing against this regulation.


I know, unfortunately the universe doesn't quite work like that....

John Schreiber

cng/diesel hybrid fuel systems would be one way to retrofit the older stuff

Rafael Seidl

Emissions retrofits are an enormous technical and financial challenge. Old diesels use relatively low injection pressures (as low as 1000 bar) and magneto injectors, leveraging tried-and-true technology in preference to new-fangled common rail piezo injectors etc. The trade-off is higher engine-out emissions. The engine control systems are similarly basic but super-reliable.

Even more problematic, however, is that off-road diesel may contain much higher levels of sulfur than the on-road kind (ULSD). SCR systems, which can in principle be retrofitted to old diesels, do need ULSD - but that's more expensive. DPF integration requires messing with the ECU or, adding a burner to the exhaust system to support purge cycles.

From a policy point of view, there are therefore only two realistic options:

a) accept that machinery has a long service life and will therefore continue to pollute for many years to come. Stricter rules would only apply to machinery that was newly registered in the state of California - meaning you couldn't bring in a polluting used unit from out-of-state.

b) insist that air quality trumps all else and use public funds/tax breaks to offset the high cost of accelerated asset depreciation and retrofits/new purchases.

One snag: the state of California can ill afford option B. As a compromise, CA could choose option B only for selected counties with high population density and poor natural ventilation. The rest of the state would be subject to option A. The trick is figuring out how to make such a policy stick, given the inevitable lawsuits from folks living in those less-favored counties.


Rafael, your comments are excellent as always. Maybe they should put you in charge of CARB. I have only one small comment, regarding:

Even more problematic, however, is that off-road diesel may contain much higher levels of sulfur than the on-road kind (ULSD). SCR systems, which can in principle be retrofitted to old diesels, do need ULSD - but that's more expensive.

ULSD is available now, and the added expense is not that much (<10 cents/gallon?) so this would seem to be almost a non-problem, relative to some of the other issues.


Does anyone know how the new CARB people stand on the ZEV mandate?

Stan Peterson

There is little doubt that the regulatory agency most filled with zealous crazies is the CARB. They have treated technological advance as something that a bunch of ignorant lawyers and know-nothings can just mandate and it will magically appear. These people have established the most ridiculous schedules that can be imagined.

They have not let reality intrude in at least three regulatory disasters for which they eventually had to back off. Remember led-acid BEVs production mandates of 1990 for BEVs? Remember the fuel cell, hydrogen fiasco and the production mandates for ZEVs? Do you remember the 100% GHG emission "ideal" vehicle standard that is now being revised?

Rewriting and replacing SULEV II, ZEVand PZEV with a tougher PZEV and a real ICE ZEV standard, would be a start. Automakers can make a gasoline engined car cleaner than the toughest CARB PZEV standards today, but there is no incentive to add costs, as they don't count for anything. Since these proposed vehicles are not full 100%, all strong, GHG emitters, that ZEV demands.

When the automakers offered Cleaner cars that met and exceeded the toughest CARB standard; the zealots DID NOT WANT OR ACCEPT those vehicles or create a standard for them! CARB zealots actually REJECTED setting a tougher ICE ZEV standard, caught up in their dreams for hydrogen fuel cells.

The embarrassing thing for the zealots, is that they actually DID stifle the arrival of clean air with their zaniness.

Money spent attempting to comply, with impossible technology or schedules was wasted. It delayed the arrival of other more realistic and cleaner technologies on a realistic time frame. We could have a clean ICE Zero Emissions Vehicle, on the roads of California today, if the CARBite idiots had simply got OUT OF THE WAY.

If some of the craziest zealots are purged, I say it's about damn time, and HOORAY....


Still kills me that CARB is the unelected "arbiter" for the whole country(and now Canada and Mexico) yet is now only slowly going after off-road/marine emissions. We need clean diesel tech NOW along with 50+ cetane ULSD. This can be done fairly easily & cheap.

Ed Danzer

Many of the older diesel engines will not live running ULSD. The heat and space requirements for exhaust after treatment equipment are unacceptable for many machine retrofits. There are no simple low cost quick fixes, and CARB needs to face reality and reality sucks. Profit margins for farming, logging and construction will require subsidization in order to upgrade to newly designed equipment with after treatment. The design process for this equipment will take a few years and will eliminate some of the small manufactures that cannot justify the redesign cost for a few machines per year.

Be careful what you wish for, you may not be able to sustain your dream.

James Kocaba

I suspect that since ULSD is required to fuel all on-road diesel engines that ULSD is also being used to fuel non-road diesel equipment as well, especially in urban areas.

Why would suppliers have two separate stockpiles or holding tanks for ULSD and LSD? Now that ULSD is required Nationwide the demand for LSD is low. If the demand is low, and the fuel stock is not moving, suppliers won't carry low sulfur diesel. This is evident in my home state of Connecticut. On-site fueling companies only stock ULSD, which allows them to be more efficient and profitable.

Working in construction and the diesel emissions field, I have not received any complaints from Contractors in regards to problems associated with equipment running on ULSD. Using ULSD to fuel construction equipment instantly reduces exhaust emissions and allow retrofit devices to work properly.

The cost of construction retrofits should be included as part of the bid documents. Prime contractors and sub-contractors who are preparing estimates and bidding on Federally funded projects must include the cost of retrofitting equipment, that meets contract specifications, in the general cost of the project.


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