Imagine Los Angeles without smog. No dirty haze dimming streetlights, no film obscuring the Hollywood sign on the hill. Electric vehicles have evolved beyond status symbols; regular people drive them daily to their office jobs, and their kids ride electric yellow buses to school. Giant container ships plug into electricity at the ports rather than pouring pollution into nearby communities. And the source of energy for all these things is wind and solar. The air is no longer deadly to breathe; the climate is no longer headed for catastrophe.
It seems like a utopian future, but in fact it’s already becoming a reality. Today, California’s public utilities are pouring millions into clean energy projects – including electric buses, battery charging infrastructure and electrifying the second-busiest port in the country.
But the future didn’t always look so bright. This new reality is a result of a constant drumbeat for a zero emission future by a coalition of environmental, health and environmental justice groups. And it all started 10 years ago with a table full of environmental lawyers at a D.C. restaurant, a 48-slide PowerPoint presentation and a disgruntled former employee of a California regulatory agency.
Paul Cort remembers the first time he met Loretta Lynch (not the former U.S. attorney general). Back in November 2007, Lynch gave her elevator pitch to Cort and his fellow Earthjustice attorneys during a group dinner. She was on a mission to find competent environmental lawyers to take on public utilities commissions (PUCs), state-level government agencies with a fundamental duty to oversee the utility monopolies and keep them from price gouging consumers. Their secondary function is to keep the lights on, which means commissioners tend to hand down decisions that prop up fossil fuels over innovation.
Lynch felt the PUCs were corrupt and co-opted by electric utilities only interested in selling more dirty energy. And she would know: She once served as president of the California PUC.
“These agencies were in the shadows, in an insider, jargon-filled environment where money talks,” says Lynch. “And I knew that until we could get the courts to rein in rogue administrative agencies like the PUCs, we would never get a renewable energy future. The money is just too good to have them stop sucking on the fossil fuel teat.”
As an animated Lynch gave a rapid-fire overview of PUCs, and how attorneys could use the law to force the agency to help mitigate climate change and plan for a clean energy future, Cort was impressed—and stunned.
“We had never worked in the PUCs, and we realized that we were only seeing parts of the fossil fuel system,” says Cort, who was used to tackling air quality issues by stopping power plants in court.
With Lynch’s guidance, Earthjustice attorneys hatched a plan to force PUCs to rethink how the U.S. generates electricity. They zeroed in on California, a state with progressive policies and a deep well of private and public sector support for clean tech.
Cort went into the work with modest expectations. He wanted to show the PUC that its decisions have environmental consequences, and to bring those consequences to the forefront of the discussion.
“At first, we weren’t quite sure how to do it,” admits Cort. “We were jumping in blind.”
Cort’s first case in 2010 involved a commission hearing to discuss the long-term plan for meeting California’s energy needs. The utilities wanted to build more power plants, and the commission, assuming that more fossil fuel power is better, was inclined to agree.
“We kind of needed to blow up that assumption,” says Cort.
He demonstrated that California already had plenty of power to meet future energy needs, even without the expected increase in solar and wind, which was taking off in the state. Two out of three utilities ultimately admitted as much, and the commission nixed the plan to build new plants.
“It felt like a good victory out of the gate,” he says.
That first win held the line against fossil fuels. Cort now needed to get the commission to think bigger.
The solution came to him one day while poring over a California Air Resources Board report. It showed that the state, home to the most air-polluted regions in the country, could only meet federal clean air standards by transitioning to zero-emissions technology. Cort realized he had to convince the PUC and other regulatory agencies to look at not just greenhouse gas emissions, but also air quality, when making energy decisions.
He built his case with federal laws like the Clean Air Act, which legally requires states to meet certain air pollution standards, and coupled them with California state laws on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Together, these laws helped force the regulators’ hands.
“We used clean air laws to bolster climate policies,” says Cort. “It was an untapped strategy.”
At the same time, Cort showed that California was ready to replace dirty fuels like natural gas with truly clean energy. The components of a smart grid—like electric vehicles, charging stations and batteries—were already here. Regulators just needed to create policies that would help grow the nascent industry.
With every step decision makers took toward moving away from fossil fuels, Cort would push them one further. After California legislators passed SB 350, which directs agencies to consider policies that achieve widespread electrification of the transportation sector, Cort convinced the PUC to look beyond passenger vehicles and enact policies that electrify freight vehicles like trucks and ships. Freight has an outsized impact on both carbon emissions and air pollution, and trucks, in particular, are great candidates for electrification because many have short routes that continuously pass through the same neighborhoods.
Taylor Thomas grew up in one of those neighborhoods, in an area in west Long Beach that’s part of the “diesel death zone.” Growing up, she remembers ashen skies and the constant noise of the nearby freeway, ports and trains. At seven, she was diagnosed with asthma, a common health condition for many in her community.
“As a kid, you don’t realize that isn’t normal,” says Thomas.
During PUC hearings, Taylor spoke on behalf of frontline communities, which are heavily impacted by freight pollution. Earthjustice also brought in labor unions like the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to ensure that any jobs created from the clean energy sector are safe, local, high-paying jobs.
Daniel Wilbour, a former auto mechanic who now works at BYD, an electric bus company in southern California, says he likes that his job helps clean the air. That’s especially important for his two kids, one of whom suffers from mental and physical disabilities.
“My son’s little lungs can only take so much bad stuff coming in,” says Wilbour.
As Earthjustice racks up the wins, innovation continues to drive more innovation. Last year, after Cort helped convince the PUC to prioritize electrification of freight, California’s largest utilities proposed investing more than $1 billion to build out charging infrastructure for trucks, buses and other large equipment. Last Thursday, the PUC unanimously approved the first chunk of these proposals by greenlighting over a dozen projects totaling tens of millions of dollars of investment in transportation electrification, renewable energy integration and the electrification of cargo equipment at the Ports of San Diego and Long Beach.
Earthjustice used those developments to push L.A.’s public transit agency, the nation’s second largest, to commit to electrify its entire bus fleet by 2030, and to push the Ports of L.A. and Long Beach to adopt a plan for moving all port trucks and equipment to zero-emission technologies by 2035.
And we won’t stop there. Earthjustice’s Right to Zero campaign wants to see the entire state powered by zero-emission sources that heal the climate and clean the air. Then, it will take that clean energy blueprint and apply it across the country.
“When we first started this, people thought we were crazy. The debate was all about if we could get to zero emissions, not when,” says Cort. “That conversation has completely flipped.”
He adds, “I’ve been working on air quality for so long, and we’re now in a position where that problem could be solved in my lifetime. If that happens, that would really feel like a career well spent.”
by Jessica A. Knoblauch
Jessica A. Knoblauch is a Senior Staff Writer at Earthjustice, earthjustice.org.
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