Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Councilman’s Paris invitation must’ve got lost in the mail

A typical, smoggy day in Los Angeles.
A typical, smoggy day in Los Angeles. AP

Dwight Robinson will be in the Orange County suburb of Lake Forest today, a long way from Paris.

Jerry Brown, Kevin de León, Tom Steyer and California’s other climate change combatants evidently didn’t think to include him on the list of invitees to the Global Climate Summit. No matter. He has plenty to do stateside.

As the Democratic leaders gather in France for heady talks about reducing our carbon footprint and saving the earth, Robinson focuses on his role as the newest member of the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s Governing Board, which is responsible for cleaning the air in the basin where smog got its name. He worries that air restrictions are too burdensome.

“Talking to fellow business owners, we feel like businesses are unfairly treated,” said Robinson, who runs a company at the Los Angeles harbor that exports farm products to Asia. “I want to strike the balance between sensible environmental stewardship and retaining middle class jobs. That is my main focus.”

For all their differences, Republicans and Democrats, like cats and dogs and wolves and sheep, have a fundamental interest in clean air. As a result, the South Coast air board rarely turns particularly partisan. That could change.

With Robinson and two other new members in place, the 13-member board will tilt conservative, which has implications for 17 million sets of lungs in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

“If the majority of the air district board decides to try to weaken standards, then we could have setbacks in the part of the country that has the worst air,” said Bill Magavern, of the California Coalition for Clean Air in Sacramento. “That means more sickness, more premature death.”

The air board shake-up is the handiwork of California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte, with encouragement if not assistance from business interests, including the oil industry. The coup took place while Democrats reveled in the power that comes with holding every statewide elective office in California and dominating the Legislature.

“We’ve been focused on the Southern California Air Quality Management District for quite some time,” Brulte told me. “We didn’t tell anybody about it. We just worked quietly with local Republican officials.”

Brulte, who became California Republican Party chairman in 2013, is implementing a strategy that includes rebuilding his party from the ground up, focusing on fights he can win, and righting the party’s finances. By engineering a change at the South Coast air board, the GOP proved it has relevance, a point not lost on donors.

The oil industry is one of the Republicans’ most reliable sources of funding. Oil companies have given no less than $1.2 million to GOP accounts since the start of 2013, not counting direct contributions to Republican candidates and independent campaigns backing them.

On any given day, the South Coast basin competes with Houston and Bakersfield for the nation’s worst air, and usually prevails, though this is not a competition any region would want to win.

While much of the basin’s pollution comes from 11 million vehicles, plus trucks, trains and ships, about 20 percent comes from power plants, factories and refineries. These stationary sources are the focus of the air district’s rule-making, and fines, which is why the board’s makeup matters to industry.

The GOP doesn’t control much of anything in Sacramento. But Republicans outnumber Democrats on city councils and county boards of supervisors in California. And local officials appoint members to some regional boards, including the South Coast Air Quality Management District board.

That’s where Robinson comes in. A first-term City Council member in the Orange County town of Lake Forest, so named for two man-made lakes, Robinson challenged Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido for a seat on the air board. Pulido, who had been on the air board for a decade, represents an Orange County city that has four times the population of Lake Forest. He’s also a Democrat.

“It is surprising that Miguel Pulido had the support he had in the past,” Robinson said, noting a majority of mayors in Orange County cities are Republican.

Orange County Republican Party Chairman Fred Whitaker made that same point in a letter urging local officials to support Robinson. The letter, disclosed by the online publication Voice of Orange County, cited Robinson’s “long history of service to the Republican Party.”

“He believes governments at all levels need to reduce regulations so businesses can thrive and develop more opportunities for themselves and their employees,” the letter says.

Having won the support of a majority of local officials, Robinson will take his seat after the first of the year, in time to vote on a new five-year plan for complying with federal Clean Air Act requirements. The board also will help to implement state and federal regulations that seek to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Or not.

Magavern accuses Republicans of “turning the air district into a political football,” with help from the Western State Petroleum Association, the trade group for major oil companies in the state.

Brulte, who lives in San Bernardino, which is in the South Coast air basin, says his effort is not intended to help any particular industry, but rather has to do with philosophy.

“This is about having conservative, pro-free-enterprise governance of a major regulatory body in Southern California,” Brulte said. “It is not about any specific industry. It about the totality of a regulatory body whose leadership likes to brag about being regulators.”

Republicans won’t be electing a governor in California any time soon. But Democrats shouldn’t gloat. As they talk climate with world leaders in the Paris, a councilman from suburban Orange County could start holding sway over air regulations for almost half the state.