The departed administration of ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has
been thoroughly discredited, its record of bending public policy to the
whims of campaign donors often demonstrated and his own lack of
trustworthiness amply proven.
But pockets of Schwarzenegger's influence and the lack of integrity
he epitomized remain in place more than eight months after his
departure from office, one of the most notable at the California Air
During the last year of the ex-muscleman's tenure, the ARB — arbiter
of air quality issues for all the state's cars, trucks and industries —
was beset with doubts about its own truthfulness.
Questions arose last year when some of its pollution estimates
turned out to be off by as much as 300 percent, as with its figures on
how much diesel fuel is burned in California and the level of
particulate smog produced by diesel motors.
Those flawed estimates were used to force operators of
diesel-powered trucks, off-road vehicles, seaport and airport machinery
and others to retrofit engines or replace them with new models
producing far less oxides of nitrogen and particulates.
The errors were discovered and the rules placed in abeyance only
because of the work of an outside researcher using information readily
available to — but unused by — the ARB's own staff.
There was also the concurrent charge that the ARB spurred a
decision to deny reappointment to epidemiology researcher James Enstrom
after 34 years there. This came after Enstrom authored a report
claiming there is no evidence that particulates from diesel exhaust
kill anyone, a direct contradiction of longtime ARB dogma and its claim
that crud from diesels has caused at least 18,000 premature deaths
Any questions about the ARB's trustworthiness quickly become
critical because the public health — and many billions of dollars — are
at stake in its decisions. For more than 50 years until 2010,
no one seriously questioned the integrity of air board decisions, with
politicians of both left and right consistently backing its pioneering
smog-fighting tactics. These have included everything from requirements
for the first rudimentary smog control devices to catalytic converters
to emission standards that led to hybrid and electric cars.
The credibility questions made it clear last winter that a
housecleaning was in order at the top levels of the ARB, that
newly-restored Gov. Jerry Brown ought to appoint replacements for the Schwarzenegger-appointed board chair Mary Nichols and others.
But that never happened. Brown kept Nichols in office, possibly
because their ties go back to his earlier administration in the late
1970s, when Nichols eagerly backed a long-ago discredited plan to set
up centralized smog control centers that would have ended the extensive
network of small shops California featured both then and now. She
also supported development of liquefied natural gas importing
facilities along the California coast, a notion long since discredited
— in fact, many such importing stations in other states are now being
converted to exports.
So Nichols has made significant errors before.
Now she backs a cap-and-trade system as the major way to enforce the
greenhouse-gas reductions mandated by the state's landmark AB 32
pollution-cutting law. That's a system where major polluters could buy
clean-air credits from others who pollute less than what they're
allowed to emit. Nichols has not wavered despite last year's collapse of a Midwestern exchange that operated 10 years before failing.
One of her latest moves is a one-year delay of this state's planned
cap-and-trade system, a decision that has already been criticized as
politically motivated by some business lobbyists. Such accusations were
never hurled at the ARB before questions about its honesty arose last
Even some conservation groups like Communities for a Better
Environment contend there are better ways than cap-and-trade to reach
the AB 32 carbon-reduction goals.
The key question for Brown here is whether such questions would
still be arising had he cleaned house at the ARB immediately on
re-entering the governor's office.
He could have eliminated all doubt about the ARB's integrity by
placing a different, respected academic at the head of this agency that
has more power and national influence than almost any other in
Because he did nothing of the sort, sticking instead with frequent
government appointee Nichols, the mistakes and questions raised last
year continue to dog the reputation of the ARB, which perpetually needs
to be as pure as Caesar's wife in order to be trusted and effective.
Thomas D. Elias of Santa Monica is an author and columnist. Email him at email@example.com.