“Yuck” was the immediate reply from my off-at-college daughter after I recently texted her a picture of Fresno’s air quality.
Yuck is right. Her response made me reflect on a Fresno Bee opinion piece by several members of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District Board about the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent proposal to establish more stringent health-based limits on ground-level ozone (smog) – lowering those thresholds by a whopping two-thirds of 1 percent (from 75 parts per billion to 70 parts per billion) – through the Clean Air Act.
The familiar objection raised by the Valley Air Board members is that the new standard will cost the region jobs. The board members – whose jobs, ironically, are to protect air quality – even went so far as to advocate for removal of the Clean Air Act’s deadlines and fines for failure to comply, under the guise of “modernizing” the law. The Valley Air District’s executive officer has claimed that the only way to meet the new standard will be to “shut down businesses.” Their arguments are ill-informed and reminiscent of what naysayers claimed about unleaded gas in the 1980s or methyl bromide in the last few years.
Many businesses in the Valley already are seeing the economic benefits from adopting clean-air technologies. My firm, the Central Valley NMTC Fund, looks to invest in firms that can deliver “triple-bottom-line” results – economic, social and environmental. We’re funding an innovative biomass plant in North Fork that will utilize 25 tons per day of locally sourced biomass from forest restoration and fuel reduction activities to make clean energy, sequester 1,300 tons per year of carbon dioxide (equivalent to about 250 cars) and create much-needed jobs.
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In another example, Cargill, Tesla and PG&E are working together to reduce air pollution by installing Tesla’s energy-storage technology at a Fresno beef-production plant that will store off-peak energy to use during peak hours, which will save the company thousands of dollars each year. This technology not only provides a huge return on investment for the company, but also allows more sustainable and environmentally friendly forms of energy, like wind and solar, to provide the initial electrical generation.
The fact is clean air is good business. Beyond agriculture and government jobs, to attract the types of private businesses that will offer higher wages and an improved standard of living for our region, we cannot afford to ignore the fact that many employers will not even consider locating here because of existing health hazards, particularly poor air quality. Clean air and a healthy environment are paramount on everyone’s list when deciding where to live, where to work and, especially, where to raise a family. I have experienced this firsthand with potential recruits from outside the Valley turning down job offers because of our bad air.
Fresno has always had a positive, can-do attitude when it comes to adapting to new technologies that can help our economy. What we’ve done with water technology we can do with clean-air technology. As a business owner, I commend our large, established industries that have spent hundreds of millions of dollars reducing their emissions, and I empathize with the concern they might be asked to take further steps. However, the Clean Air Act’s new science-based targets are the framework for further progress and provide a way to level the playing field across all sectors.
We also need a shift in our dialogue. I recently saw a billboard that read “Stop Clean Air.” I couldn’t help but wonder if the ad’s sponsors were suggesting that dirty air was a good thing for the Valley. Not only is air pollution directly connected to rampant health problems throughout the Valley, such as asthma and cardiovascular disease, but dirty air results in lost economic productivity.
Fresno State’s Central Valley Health Policy Institute found the total economic cost of health complications and lost productivity due to toxic levels of ozone and particulate matter reaches more than $3 billion per year, which is equivalent to the value of Fresno County’s entire annual almond, grape, poultry and dairy production. It couldn’t be clearer. Poor air quality hurts our economy. It’s bad business.
Saying we have to choose between clean air or economic growth is a false choice. We can support a thriving economy, reduce our air pollution and improve the health and welfare of our friends, neighbors and businesses all at the same time. Don’t listen to the naysayers; the Valley can do this.
TJ Cox is a Fresno businessman who is involved in the redevelopment of Granite Park, a 20-acre recreational and green space project.