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California communities reap benefits from clean air policies

Sekita Grant
Sekita Grant

My parents emigrated to the United States in the 1960s from Guyana, and I’ve put down roots in Oakland. When I was a little girl, they told me stories about our motherland’s lush rain forests, fertile soils and diverse wildlife.

Later, as an attorney doing pro bono work in the Central Valley, I witnessed low-income Californians living next to fields full of oil pump jacks. This experience opened my eyes to the fact that environmental injustices, which my family witnessed abroad, also happen in California.

The same communities who so often bear the brunt of climate change are also historically on the losing end of policy decisions, but California is shattering this flawed model by fighting poverty and pollution at the same time.

By law, at least 25 percent of proceeds from California’s signature climate change and clean energy law, AB 32, must benefit disadvantaged communities – and we’re exceeding this in practice.

In 2014, I witnessed a shameful spectacle in Sacramento as Western States Petroleum Association lobbyists scrambled to exempt the oil industry from AB 32. Luckily, the Legislature held firm, rejecting the oil lobby’s doomsday predictions, and didn’t give the industry a special exemption from California’s clean air policies.

As of Jan. 1, 2015, California’s oil industry joined other polluters in having to pay for the carbon they put into our air. Now that the industry has complied with the law for over a year, it’s fitting to take stock.

Beyond question, Californians are reaping the benefits of AB 32. None of big oil’s self-serving warnings came true. Instead, California saw its Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund roughly double in size, growing to more than $2 billion in proceeds overall – money that’s helping Californians clean our air, save money and conserve energy.

By supporting affordable housing near public transportation, clean vehicles, reliable transit, solar panels and more, California climate investments are already helping us address long-standing community issues while helping families cut their energy bills.

More good news arrived recently. UCLA’s Luskin Center for Innovation shared research indicating low-income Californians are seeing financial gains from AB 32. A new Consumers Union report revealed that low-carbon policies, including AB 32, will save Californians $8 billion to $18 billion on fuel in the next five years. By 2030, California families will save up to $1,530 each year as a result of these policies, as new clean energy investments bring jobs and opportunities into underserved neighborhoods.

AB 32 climate investments have already helped my community. More than $1.5 million went to plant trees in Richmond and Oakland, cleaning our air and revitalizing our neighborhoods. Nearly $1.6 million went to repairing and maintaining aging BART cars – especially urgent given the system’s recent challenges. More than $3 million helped build 32 affordable apartments on International Boulevard, while $1.5 million backed 40 units of affordable family housing in downtown Oakland.

There’s much more. People in all regions of California are benefiting, and we’ve collected a few of their stories at upliftca.org/in-our-neighborhoods.

Time and time again, the oil industry tells us to settle for dirty air. They try to sell us the same tired myth of “the economy vs. the environment” to convince us we must choose one over the other, when the facts clearly prove otherwise.

In my East Bay home and throughout California, we’ve chosen a brighter future. Especially for my neighbors who face some of the state’s most entrenched pollution, our bold climate leadership – bolstered by the oil industry’s reluctant compliance with AB 32 – offers a promising way forward.

Sekita Grant is environmental equity legal counsel at The Greenlining Institute and lives in Oakland.

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