Friday, December 16, 2005

Too little, Too late

The sprawling nature of suburban communities has long been recognized to foster a dependence on the automobile over other modes of transport. This dependence has in turn led to two key problems for this country and others intent on following our path: a growing need for more energy sources to power the increase in vehicle miles traveled and a resulting increase in automotive pollution. Both issues are intricately linked and driven by overall growth pressures. As is the case with most things bureaucratic, responsibility for addressing each issue are left to multiple jurisdictions. Each agency treats the problem without consideration to what caused it in the first place. In California, issues of air quality are generally handled by regional air districts under state and federal guidance. Energy related issues on the other hand, have largely remained under the jurisdiction of state and federal energy agency offices.
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With that in mind, it is a pleasant surprise when an agency manages to grasp the bigger picture.
In a closely watched move, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District of California recently adopted a new rule that will assess a fee on all future development based on how much—or little—pollution that each new proposal would create. This rule, known as the Indirect Source Rule (ISR), will assess builders a fee based in part on how many pollution-inhibiting features each development will possess. What makes this rule so unique is that it actually focuses on the root causes of pollution, namely land use patterns, road networks and building design. The air district anticipates that by redesigning neighborhoods (placing housing closer to jobs and shopping), improving internal circulation networks (more pathways, less cul-de-sacs) and making housing more energy efficient, smaller amounts of pollution will be generated by everyday activities. Developers that incorporate one or more such elements could see their fee reduced or eliminated. Those that choose not to participate would be assessed the maximum fee. Collected fees would then be distributed for valley-wide air pollution efforts.
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Assuming it survives the inevitable court challenge, this rule has a profound energy impact as well: all of the above mentioned techniques that seek to reduce air pollution do so by reducing energy consumption. Even more remarkable is that these anticipated reductions come from fundamental changes in behavior and not from the usual efficiency improvements.
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The fact that this air district is even willing to take on this political hot potato in what is a very Conservative swath of California is a testament to awful air quality of the region. Put simply, the air stinks. The San Joaquin Valley has long been a dry and dusty place, prone to long periods of air stagnation. The valley is surrounded by mountains on three sides with only a narrow opening for fresh air at the north. Industrialized civilization has taken this natural bowl and filled it with a fetid stew of factory farm-derived pesticide spraying and particulate matter, vehicular smog, petro-chemical fumes (California’s most productive oil fields are in Kern County) and wood burning particles. It is no wonder that the valley has the second worst air quality in the US.
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Most cars are far cleaner than their 1970’s counterparts and few emission improvements are left to implement, logic dictates focusing on reducing the overall number of emitters instead. Since the Air District cannot simply mandate no drive days, they have focused their efforts in reducing the need to travel in the first place, via land use modifications. The ISR is an outgrowth of this.
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As good as this regulatory development is, it is way too little too late, to mitigate the coming energy crunch. It probably will not even help reduce pollution levels. For starters, the fee will start out at a laughable $780. Per house. With houses in the valley typically going for $200-300 thousand range, the percentage of the purchase price will be miniscule at best. The only thing more laughable is the Building Industry Association’s claim that it will reduce the affordability of housing in the area. Questions of a housing bubble aside, home valuations have increased by far larger percentages than the fee comprises. It would not be surprising to see builders fork over that fee, pass it on and continue on as usual. To really be serious about reducing energy use (and pollution levels) the fee would have to rise to a level that would spur on alternative development plans. A more draconian suggestion would be to simply prohibit conventional suburban development. Those two ideas would probably stand a better chance at reducing pollution than the ISR rule as currently written.
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More importantly, the ISR does nothing to retrofit or adapt patterns in existing neighborhoods. It doesn’t address infill, building retrofits, street circulation improvements or land rezonings. Though construction activity is significant in the San Joaquin, overall reductions in energy consumption as a result of this plan would remain small for many years to come due to the small portion of overall units that are newly constructed.
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With 1,100 annual deaths attributable to pollutants and one out of every six Valley children living with asthma, it’s quite understandable that reducing pollution is job number one for elected officials and civil servants alike. In reality, it should be job number three. Pollution and its preceding factor, fossil fuel energy consumption are simply symptoms of ever increasing growth pressures and depict an environment pushed further into overshoot. And overshot it has. Not only is the valley (like many other places) dependant on out of region energy supplies, local surface water supplies have been up to 100% diverted from the original streams to irrigate farms while the aquifer is in an overdrafted condition. The “fertile” soils of this broad alluvial valley have been so overworked, they bear little resemblance to their original condition. Only through massive additions of fertilizer and pesticides do they remain productive. To add insult to injury, the easiest soils to cultivate are lost to development pressures driven by relentless growth. Growth brought on by natural increase, immigration and internal migration (equity refugees) and enthusiastically welcomed by local politicians, retailers and builders.
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Any “solution” that fails to address the growth pressure will fall victim to Jeavon’s Paradox, whereby any improvement in energy consumption or pollution production per capita is lost to continued growth. Control the growth rate first before trying to reduce energy consumption. Do both of those and overall pollution levels will inevitably decline.
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Unfortunately, the advocacy of energy conservation and reduction is even less popular than trying to clean up the air. “The American way of life is non-negotiable,” remember? The ISR as currently defined will wind up a minor sideshow in the orgy of development ongoing in Central California.
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The advocacy of limiting growth is simply taboo. What, fewer people? Less goods? That’s just racist, against God’s will or anti-free market. Whatever your persuasion, it is just wrong…
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Perhaps there was a time, some six decades ago when America was flush with cash, oil and a pent up urge to grow, we may have been able to make the ISR rule work everywhere, with great results. Imagine if the Levitts and the like were forced to price in the true cost of auto-dependent suburbia. Would we have ended up in our current position? Probably not. This is not to imply that everything would have been alright either. Oil would still peak, probably later in the future. When that point would have been reached, our public transportation infrastructure and our built environment would be much more up to the task of handling a terminal decline of energy resources.
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In the end, any dependence on a non-renewable resource would have left us exposed to the inevitable consequences of depletion. Proper planning for use of a non-renewable resource really ought to begin before extraction begins. Anything else, like the ISR rule is too little, too late.

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