Leon Worden




Paying the price to clean our air

By Leon Worden
Wednesday, February 3, 1999

A
press release from the Natural Resources Defense Council landed on my desk last week. It seems the NRDC and other environmental groups settled a lawsuit Thursday in which it was alleged that the California Air Resources Board and the South Coast Air Quality Management District violated the federal Clean Air Act by failing to implement a 1994 plan designed to reduce air pollution.

Under the settlement, new controls will go into effect this year to cut smog pollution by 57 tons a day, according to the NRDC. Among the measures are a tougher standard for heavy-duty buses, new gasoline station vapor recovery equipment, tighter standards for gasoline trucks and some regulations affecting consumer products.

Thursday's press release came a month after the ARB announced that 1998 was another banner year for smog in Los Angeles — or the lack thereof.

In a Jan. 1 story, ARB spokesman Rich Varenchik — who happens to live in Santa Clarita and once was a reporter for The Signal — noted that there were 148 stage-one smog alerts in the South Coast Air Basin in 1970. The number dropped to 101 in 1980, 41 in 1990 and just 12 in 1998.

Even without the numbers, if you've lived here awhile you know our air is a lot better than it was in the 1970s.

According to Varenchik, our air continues to improve because of the myriad steps taken by agencies like the ARB and the South Coast AQMD. In 1998 ARB developed new standards to reduce emissions from cars and light trucks, lawn and garden equipment, motorcycles and off-road equipment, outboard boat engines and personal watercraft. An inspection program was undertaken to reduce smoke from heavy-duty diesel trucks, and in 2004, Varenchik said, new regulations will take effect to bring emissions from sport utility vehicles down to the level of automobiles.

Even with all of today's regulations, "California has the dubious distinction of having the worst air in the country," Varenchik said. "That's why the federal government gave California the right to have an Air Resources Board — to make rules that are more stringent than the rest of the nation. A rule that will work for Iowa, Kansas or Minnesota might not do the trick in California."

Another story crossed my desk recently, and if you've read the paper lately, you've probably figured out where I'm going with this.

Gas prices.

Ours are highest. Whether Santa Clarita's are highest is a matter of debate, but overall, California's are highest outside of Hawaii.

I was talking to a guy in San Diego the other day who heads a movement to bring equality to that area's gas prices. Outright price fixing is illegal, but it's no big secret that the oil companies charge gasoline dealers higher wholesale prices in certain areas than in other areas. They call it pricing zones. You might call it redlining.

Santa Clarita is one of the places where oil companies charge gas dealers more for the same gallon of gas than they charge in, say, the San Fernando or Antelope Valleys — places nearer and farther from the point of distribution. It isn't a matter of distance. They charge our dealers more because they can, and they admit it.

We're talking pennies. Sure, a penny here and a penny there adds up — the surcharge for the luxury of living here ranges from 3 to 10 cents per gallon — but what struck me is something the guy from San Diego said.

When he was in Rhode Island, he paid 99 cents for gas when it cost $1.20 in L.A. and San Diego. He discounted the notion that it was because of California's high gas taxes. Rhode Island's are higher, he said.

Last I checked, SCV dealers were paying 69 cents for regular unleaded gasoline before taxes. Add in the 18-cent state excise tax and the 18.3-cent federal excise tax and you're at $1.053. Add the 8.5-percent sales tax to that — a tax on a tax — and you're at about $1.14. You're paying roughly $1.19 to $1.21 at the pump, so the dealers are making their lease payments and paying their electricity bills and wages on just pennies per gallon. They aren't at fault for the high gas prices.

Who is? Besides the oil companies for their SCV surcharge, I mean?

Look at the low 59-cent wholesale price a dealer in Anaheim was paying last month. A gallon of refined gasoline sells for about 36 cents on the spot market. What's the 23-cent difference?

Some of it is shipping and transfer costs. Some is profit for the oil companies. But anywhere from 5 to 15 cents of it is the cost of retrofitting equipment and reformulating the gasoline to meet California's strict controls on emissions, oil industry executives say.

California's air pollution controls are getting even stricter. Expect to pay for them.

    Leon Worden is The Signal's business editor.

    ©1999 LEON WORDEN — ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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