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The Greater Los Angeles Basin has long been known for its urban smog.
But in recent years the entire region has made great strides in reducing a specific type of air pollution — particulate matter — by targeting industrial and commercial generators at the source.
Surprisingly, the lynchpin of their comprehensive, alternative energy efforts has not been renewable solar or wind power but natural gas.
To be sure, the transition to renewable energy sources is the long-term goal, but the vast majority of air pollution in Los Angeles today comes not from stationary facilities such as electric power plants but from motor vehicles.
And the most egregious overland polluters are commercial tractor trailers, buses and large fleet trucks that are powered by older heavy-duty diesel engines.
Accordingly, regulatory efforts such as the California Clean Idle certification standard, that forces engine shutdown after inactivity, and the strict enforcement of school bus no-idle zones in K-12 districts have to some degree helped reduce diesel emissions.
But by far the greatest reductions have come not from legislative fiat but through market forces associated with the widespread adoption of cheaper compressed natural gas (CNG) as an alternative fuel for a wide range of commercial vehicles and industrial equipment.
According to SoCalGas, the conversion of Los Angeles Metro’s 2,250 buses to CNG “has reduced cancer-causing particulates from the fleet by 98 percent, carbon monoxide by 80 percent and greenhouse gases by about 150 tons per day [and] at a fuel cost that’s about 30 percent of diesel.”
Remarkably, the nation’s second largest public transit authority has logged over a billion miles on buses that run exclusively on CNG.
The Los Angeles Sanitation’s fleet of 750 refuse trucks has also had impressive gains with their experimental natural gas fuels, due in part to their decade-old collaboration with West Virginia University’s Heavy Duty Vehicle Testing Laboratory that precisely measures variable fuel-mix emission reductions.
And a great many private sector fleet vehicles — such as UPS and other delivery companies — have also converted to CNG, as sufficient refueling infrastructure is now in place throughout both Los Angeles and Orange Counties to service them remotely.
Yet by far the greatest source of air pollution in all of southern California comes not from overland vehicles but from marine vessels that burn “bunker fuel,” a heavy residual oil, just fractionally lighter than asphalt, that’s left over from crude oil refineries.
According to an article published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “Bunker fuel is loaded with toxic impurities … just 16 of the world’s largest ships burning #6 fuel oil for power, can produce the same sulfur pollution globally as all of the passenger cars in the world combined.”
As the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach rank as the two busiest container terminals in the United States, air quality in the Southland stands to improve significantly further as new International Maritime Organization environmental regulations for 2020 have incentivized ocean-going vessels to convert to extraordinarily cleaner liquefied natural gas (LNG).
And with the electrification of massive ship-to-shore gantry cranes and other port-side cargo vehicles, total air pollution emissions at these facilities have already been reduced, albeit with the power demand shifted back onto the more efficient and environmentally responsible electrical grid.
Yet even on the southern California grid, natural gas is providing significant air pollution reductions with Pasadena’s new state-of-the-art, gas-fired Glenarm Power Plant the best example as its integrated design serves as a base-load supply for companion solar and wind intermittent generators.
That domestically produced natural gas is profoundly reducing the nation’s air pollution emissions is incontrovertible, as is West Virginia’s significant supply contribution from Marcellus and Utica shale fields to the national transmission system.
What is also irrefutable is West Virginia University’s role in the California Air Resources Board’s virtual elimination of 70,000 Volkswagen diesel vehicles statewide by helping expose the emissions scandal perpetrated by the German automaker.
Corporate-wide, that action will eventually lead to the elimination of 500,000 diesel vehicles in the United States and 11 million worldwide with consequent fines, penalties and judgments now pegged at $32 billion.
One settlement, the Volkswagen Environmental Mitigation Trust, mandates funding initiatives that reduce emissions from diesel vehicles or elimination altogether via alternatives.
West Virginia’s allocation of $12 million should be earmarked to underwrite investments in consumer-end infrastructure that will accelerate the use of our own natural gas in our own transportation industries.
It would not only be economically prudent but also environmentally responsible.
Howard Swint, a commercial property broker, is vice president of Colliers International in Charleston.