A local committee's efforts to improve air quality in Shafter by spending some $40 million in state money have run up against a familiar ideological divide pitting environmental activism against the interests of Kern County industry.
The group, empowered by state legislation and guided by regional air-quality regulators, has debated a variety of strategies ranging from subsidies that would allow local residents to buy electric cars to financial incentives for farmers that invest in dust-control equipment.
While consensus has been reached on a number of proposals headed for review by regional and state officials, skepticism continues to separate people on opposite ends of the discussion.
Disagreements among committee members have tended to boil down to diverging opinions about the government's role in promoting environmentally responsible business practices and whether the project's goal should be to seek measurable, near-term results or make the community more of a leader in the long-term fight against climate change.
On one end of the group's ideological spectrum is former Shafter City Manager John Guinn, who now works for local agricultural giant The Wonderful Co. He has urged the group of more than a dozen community, business and government representatives to accept that the area's air quality largely results from outside factors and that any new initiatives should be crafted so as not to harm local businesses.
"I don't want to jeopardize (economic opportunity) or put us in the position that our families don't have any opportunities because we haven't been smart about how we manage our resources," he said.
At the other end is almond grower and clean-air activist Tom Frantz. He has called for spending much of the money on electrifying Shafter residents' homes and vehicles, which he said would help accomplish dual goals of cleaning up local air quality and furthering the state's goal of transitioning to a carbon-free future.
"We think this is the perfect opportunity to start that (transition) going," he said.
The effort stems from the passage of Assembly Bill 617 in 2017. Among other things, the legislation called for the selection of 10 disadvantaged communities disproportionately affected by air pollution. Shafter was one of two Central Valley communities that made the list, along with South Central Fresno.
The law set aside California cap-and-trade money to fund localized air-quality monitoring, which has already begun, and pay for specific initiatives with the potential to cut air pollution.
Materials provided by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District show Shafter was selected, in part, because it is influenced by rural sources of emissions such as agriculture and petroleum production, as well as exhaust from tractor-trailers and locomotives. The city also stood out because of its relatively high poverty and unemployment.
Since November, members of the local steering community have proposed a long list of anti-pollution measures. They include converting all homes in the city to electric heating; outfitting houses with photovoltaic solar panels; rerouting heavy trucks to avoid the area; banning aerial application of a certain pesticide; and banning oil drilling within 2,500 feet of homes, schools and other environmentally sensitive locations.
Some of the ideas are in line with the regional air district's traditional approach to cleaning up valley air. That is, they would subsidize farmers' purchase of less-polluting equipment, such as low-dust almond harvesters and electric-powered water pumps.
Guinn said his problem with some of the recommendations is that the city's air pollution is to a large degree outside its control. He noted the southern valley's topography resembles a "bowl": mountain ranges to the west, south and east trap air traveling south from as far away as the Bay Area.
His focus, he said, has been on promoting good investments, not only in terms of wise use of taxpayer money but also in making the greatest possible impact on health outcomes for the least amount of resources spent.
Emotions have run high at committee meetings, he asserted, with some members taking aim at the oil industry despite a shortage of data showing detrimental effects. And in some cases, like proposed limits on the use of pesticides, he said the committee appears to have run the risk of overstepping air regulators' enforcement authority.
CARS OR TRACTORS?
Guinn questioned the wisdom of spending millions of dollars to help poor residents buy electric cars. On the other hand, he defended the idea of subsidizing farmers' purchase of anti-pollution equipment.
"I am opposed to any sort of legislation that forces someone (in business) to do something that the rest of the world doesn't have to do," he said.
Frantz has taken the opposite position on the question of subsidies. He said federal and state taxpayer money should cover the entire cost of 150 electric vehicles for the lowest-income Shafter residents but that little if any money should be spent helping businesses upgrade their equipment.
"At some point, an incentive like that needs to go away and a regulation come in that, if you buy a new tractor, first of all, you pay the full cost and it has to be the cleanest available," he said.
PREFERENCE FOR INNOVATION
He characterized that approach as more of the same kind of approach already used by the regional air district.
"We're not doing anything new, nothing innovative, and helping people actually transition to a low-carbon future," he said.
One area where the two sides agree is on setting aside money to help farmers pay for low-dust almond harvesters. These machines are designed to lessen the spread of dust when trees are shaken to remove nuts.
The steering committee faces a Sept. 12 deadline for turning in a final list of recommendations to the regional air district for review by its governing board. The California Air Resources Board is scheduled to review and possibly approve the list in February.