By HOWARD FINE
When Gray Davis won election as governor and became the first Democrat in the state house in 16 years, business groups feared an onslaught of environmental regulations. Davis did little to allay those fears when he named two prominent environmental figures to his cabinet: Resources Secretary Mary Nichols and Cal-EPA Secretary Winston Hickox.
But earlier this month, Nichols, Hickox and state Air Resources Board Chairman Alan Lloyd were in town and reassured local business leaders that they are not going to throw the book at business.
Rather, all three said they want to include businesses in the crafting of key decisions and give them some flexibility in meeting environmental quality laws.
Hickox, former president of a statewide environmental lobbying group known as the League of Conservation Voters, said he favors giving first-time violators of some pollution laws a break to ease what is seen as an adversarial relationship between regulators and businesses.
“The regulatory program should make a clear effort to be reasonable and perhaps not as punitive as some might want us to be,” Hickox said. “I’m talking about first-time violators being given an opportunity to correct the problem and not pressing for fines.”
In addition, all three officials said they want businesses to help craft environmental regulations they will have to live with.
Hickox cited as an example Davis’ recent decision to phase out over four years the use of MTBE, the gas additive designed to reduce the emission of smog-forming hydrocarbons that has been blamed for contamination of underground water supplies.
Phasing out the additive over four years was praised by oil companies but termed too slow by environmental groups.
“(Davis) set a date (when) he would like to have MTBE no longer be a component of the gasoline sold in California,” Hickox said. “He called Tosco (Corp.) the next day and asked if they would make an extraordinary effort to get MTBE-free gasoline into the Tahoe basin (where the largest concentration of MTBE-tainted water has been found). They agreed to do that by April 15. And he made some other calls to other refiners and asked them to join in that effort.”
Hickox made clear, however, that such consideration is not possible in every case.
Nichols, an environmental attorney who previously served as regional air issues administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said she wants to continue the precedent set by the Wilson administration of working with developers to set aside large tracts of land for endangered species. Before Wilson’s plan was launched, the government often imposed development bans in areas where endangered species have been detected.
“I’ve seen some tremendous progress in the way in which we are able to use science and use collaborative planning processes to resolve thorny issues about how you reconcile development and species preservation,” Nichols said. “We may have some work to do on the legal issues and the science behind the planning, but I think the basic concept is very sound. We just have to find ways to fine-tune it.”
Lloyd, who was chief scientist for eight years at the South Coast Air Quality Management District, said he wants to work with the auto industry to identify and develop technologies to produce zero-emission vehicles.
Later this year and into next, the ARB will be reconsidering the zero-emission mandate, which requires that 10 percent of all vehicles sold in California by 2003 have no emissions. The ARB has raised the possibility that it would give credits toward the goal for hybrid gas-electric vehicles.
Lloyd also said he wants more research done on health threats posed by toxic chemicals emitted into the atmosphere before developing new regulations that limit pollution from cars and factories. Recently, U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, released a study concluding that atmospheric concentrations of certain toxic chemicals, like benzene and formaldehyde, were substantially above the limits set forth in the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments.
“At this stage, there is nothing out there that would precipitate new regulations in this area,” Lloyd said. “There are a lot of regulations already on the books; we now have to identify how much of a health risk these chemicals pose.”
Businessman Ed Laird said he was encouraged by the meeting with the three officials. But the owner of Huntington Beach-based Coatings Research Corp. and president of a coalition of 2,000 small businesses that has lobbied against some environmental regulations believes Davis has little choice about taking a more accommodating approach to business.
Otherwise the state economy would suffer if businesses leave the state because of over-burdensome regulations, as some did during the recession, Laird said.
“This is also a reflection of Davis’ centrist views and I think it will hold up,” Laird said. “It’s a very good policy. The rules and laws are so complex that it’s hard to keep up with them. Allowing businesses to fix first-time violations is something that the businesses would appreciate and you would probably find more cooperation with regulators as a result.”