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San Diego Union-Tribune Editorial

The air board’s test

Will zealotry or common sense win the day?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009 at 12:01 a.m.

The California Air Resources Board faces a moment of truth tomorrow. Are board members subservient to their zealous staff? Or are they public servants with common sense?

At issue is a proposal by two board members – John Telles, a Fresno cardiologist, and Ron Roberts, a San Diego County supervisor – to suspend and redo costly, sweeping new rules for diesel vehicle emissions adopted a year ago.

As reported by this editorial page shortly after that vote, the study justifying the rules was crafted by an air board researcher named Hien Tran who lied about his academic credentials. Telles and Roberts are irate that Tran’s deception was never revealed to the full board until this fall.

“Imposing such expensive and groundbreaking regulation requires securing the full faith and confidence of the public. Unfortunately, actions by air board members and staff have shaken that trust,” Roberts wrote last week in a Union-Tribune commentary.

We agree. Air board Chairwoman Mary Nichols’ refusal to disclose Tran’s dishonesty before the board vote last December and her subsequent cover-up are shameful. But her agency’s problems go far beyond Tran’s academic fraud. The willingness to hide this fraud rather than delay the adoption of the diesel rules reflects the determination of Nichols and her staff to go down in history as global pacesetters in environmental regulation no matter what.

This is reflected in Tran’s study itself, which fails to acknowledge contrary research on the health risks of diesel emissions. This zealotry is also reflected in the air board’s far more important work on AB 32, the state’s landmark 2006 anti-global warming bill that forces a shift to cleaner but much costlier forms of energy.

The “scoping plan” detailing the law’s economic effects – like Tran’s diesel emissions study – ignored any evidence that got in the way of the narrative touted by Nichols and the air board staff. This led to a scathing critique from Harvard’s Robert Stavins, arguably the world’s leading environmental economist: “The economic analysis is terribly deficient in critical ways and should not be used by the state government or the public for the purpose of assessing the likely costs of CARB’s plans. I say this with some sadness, because I was hopeful that CARB would produce sensible policy proposals analyzed with sound scientific and economic analysis.”

Stavins wouldn’t have been hopeful if he were familiar with the air board staff.

Telles and Roberts deserve praise for finally objecting to being manipulated by Nichols and her staff. Starting with tomorrow’s vote on the diesel rules, their air board colleagues need to object as well.