CARB, Not LAO, Is Authority on CO2 Reduction
The Legislative Analyst’s Office is a good source for statistical analysis of the state budget. If you want to know the potential financial impact of a particular proposal, or how much revenue a new tax might bring in, or what the state’s long-term debt looks like, they’re likely to give you good, informative answers.
But they are not experts on climate issues, nor are they experts on carbon emissions. For those issues you would want to go to the state agency that has those experts on their staff and has been studying those issues for many years – the California Air Resources Board.
CARB has included high speed rail as part of its plan to achieve the long-term CO2 emissions reductions required by AB 32. They understand that tens of millions of tons of CO2 reduction that HSR will deliver are crucial to the state’s climate efforts. CARB’s Mary Nichols made that point in an LA Times op-ed recently:
High-speed rail has the same potential to change the way people travel in California. By 2040, it could reduce car miles traveled in the state by 3.6 billion miles a year, the equivalent of taking 317,000 cars off the road daily. And by 2020, the project is estimated to eliminate between 278,000 and 674,000 net metric tons of greenhouse gases from voluntary emissions reductions, electrification of local rail and other efforts. High-speed rail will be constructed with net-zero emissions and operate 100% from renewable energy.
This statewide rail system would also give rise to transit and pedestrian-friendly development, which, in turn, preserves Central Valley farmland. The city of Fresno, for example, has approved a land-use plan that directs growth to infill and denser development in the city core, while barring expansion into prime farmland on the city’s outskirts. A key element of this downtown development is the future high-speed rail station and its connection to transit.
California is on track to meet its 2020 emission reduction goals under AB 32, and we need investments in rail modernization to help achieve long-term reductions beyond that date. Reducing car travel, promoting infill and transit-oriented development, preserving farmland and open space, and avoiding massive highway and airport expansions are all part of the high-speed rail project and the vision for California transportation.
Yet the LAO is pushing back on this, despite their lack of expertise and knowledge of climate policy. Their recent analysis of transportation in the 2014-15 budget attacks HSR on the basis of carbon emissions:
It is unclear the extent to which using such revenues to support high–speed rail will maximize GHG emission reductions. First, the high–speed rail project would not contribute significant GHG reductions before 2020, which is the statutory target for reaching 1990 emissions levels as required by Chapter 488, Statutes of 2006 (AB 32, Núñez/Pavley). This is because, as mentioned above, plans for the high–speed rail system indicate that the first phase of the project will not be operational until 2022. Second, the construction of the project would actually generate GHG emissions of 30,000 metric tons over the next several years. (The HSRA plans to offset these emissions with an urban forestry program that proposes to plant thousands of trees in the Central Valley.) We also note that HSRA’s GHG emission estimates for construction do not include emissions associated with the production of construction materials, which suggests that the amount of emission requiring mitigation could be much higher than currently planned.
So even though CARB, the agency tasked with implementing AB 32, says HSR is essential to meeting their goals, the LAO comes in and just says “sorry, no”? That doesn’t make any sense.
The LAO’s theory here is that it’s not worth huge long-term CO2 reductions if there’s a hint of small and easily offset CO2 increases that come from building new, sustainable infrastructure. But this is ridiculous if you apply it anywhere else. By the LAO’s logic, California state employees should immediately stop flying and driving. Caltrans should immediately halt all construction projects (especially since freeways generate long-term CO2 increases).
Of course, the LAO is making no such recommendations. It’s only HSR that is held to these standards. This is typical for the LAO, which is supposed to be an office that dispassionately analyzes policy but increasingly is trying to shape policy. That is the role of the elected Legislature, not of the bureaucrats at the LAO. Under Mac Taylor’s leadership, however, the LAO has been waging a highly inappropriate and misleading war against the HSR project.
The LAO should not be commenting on things they are unqualified to analyze. If they want to examine CO2 reductions as they relate to transportation, then they need to defer to the actual experts – in this case, CARB. Anything else is just speculation by people who do not know what they are talking about.