An Interview With Judy Mitchell – Environmentalist and Community Leader

By Ann Nye —

Judy Mitchell, a commercial litigation attorney by profession, has served in political office since 1999.  Recently, she stepped down as a Rolling Hills Estates council member, South Coast Air Quality Management District Board member, and California Air Resources Board member.   After reading about the SCAQMD election on December 9th to fill Judy’s seat, I reached out to her about the election, and about speaking at the January meeting about her time with RHE and the environmental boards she served on.  Since we had Michael Hiltzik scheduled to speak at  our January meeting, Judy preferred interviewing with me in January before the meeting so as not to take away time from Hiltzik’s talk.

Judy did not run for re-election in November 2020 for RHE City Council and she stepped down from her SCAQMD and CARB positions at the end of January 2021.

Here’s a timeline of Judy’s service to the community:

1984 Rolling Hills Estates (RHE)  Parks and Activities Commission
1994 RHE Planning Commission – helped establish Highridge Park, George F. Canyon Nature Center, and Linden H. Chandler Preserve
1999 – 2020 RHE City Council Member and Mayor
2010 – 2020 South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD)
2010 – 2013 South Bay Cities Council of Governments (SBCCOG), Member and Chair
2013 – 2020 California Air Resources Board (CARB), appointed by Governor Jerry Brown as the SCAQMD Member on this board

On the SCAQMD, Judy served for 10 years as one of 13 appointed and elected representatives responsible for securing clean air for the 17 million residents who live in OC and urbanized portions of LA, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.  SCAQMD makes regulation decisions on the largest sources of air pollution, such as at the ports, in rail yards and at oil refineries.  Most residents don’t know what these entities do or how one gets elected or appointed to them.  For those of us not in the know, the SCAQMD election to replace Judy took place on Dec 9, 2020, where mayors from 48 cities selected her replacement.  At the beginning of the Dec 9th meeting, Hermosa Beach City Councilman, Justin Massey, dropped out and asked people to vote for Liz Alcantar, the Mayor of Cudahy in southeast Los Angeles County.  Liz was in the news last January when a Delta Air Lines jet dumped fuel on children on a school playground in her city as it approached Los Angeles International Airport.  She competed against Long Beach City Councilman and Vice Mayor Rex Richardson, who supported increased local taxes on oil production and comes from a city with a port that is critical to the region’s economy while being a significant source of its air pollution.   The vote was very close.  Rex won, with 25 city mayors voting for him.   Liz received 23 city mayors’ votes.

Knowing this background, you will be well-versed to follow my interview with Judy Mitchell.

What SCAQMD programs that you worked on are you most proud of?

The South Coast Air District is the body charged with controlling stationery sources of air pollution.  They put  out an air quality plan in  2016 and the next one is due in 2022. One of the programs that I am proud of is that the air district, when I first came on in 2010, had a market-based incentive program called RECLAIM [Regional Clean Air Incentives Market].  That was a program where larger industries could buy credits that allowed them to pollute in lieu of installing control equipment. The program, which was initiated in 1994,  was designed to give industry flexibility in meeting air quality regulations. Periodically the air district would review the program and reduce the number of credits that were available on the market. These reductions in credit were to translate into more control equipment installed in the affected industries. The program included only credits for Nitrogen Oxides (NOx), and for Sulfur Oxides (SOx).

When it came time to do the 2016 AQMD plan there was some interest on the board, and I pushed on this effort, to end the RECLAIM program.  A majority of the board voted to end the program.  The reason I think it was appropriate was because review and reduction of credits had become a lengthy process and industry resisted efforts to reduce the credits over the course of the program.  By 2016, there were too many credits in the market.  It became evident that industry was simply buying abundant available credits instead of installing available control equipment.  It was pretty easy for the big polluters to simply pay to pollute.  The program did result in substantial reductions in the earlier part of its existence so it wasn’t a failure by any means, but it was time to end the program and require industries within the program to install equipment that met the regulatory requirements.  Under the regulatory requirements industry must install best available control equipment and/or best available retrofit control equipment.  The process requires the District and the industries to work together to do technology assessments when needed to determine the best available control equipment.  Refineries have lots of equipment in them, like boilers and process heaters. AQMD staff must review equipment in these industries, piece by piece, to determine what the best available control technology is.  New rules are in development at the same time that RECLAIM credits are retired.  When SCAQMD  gets through this process, those industries will be subject to the best control technology that is available.

What is the difference between the RECLAIM program and our State’s Cap and Trade program?

The RECLAIM program is different from our State’s Cap and Trade program.  First of all, our state Cap and Trade program is aimed at greenhouse gas emissions and it is a newer program – it didn’t come in until after 2006.  And, that program, I’m optimistic that it is more successful, because what we mean when we say Cap and Trade for the state program is that the cap on emissions is reduced every year automatically by 10%.  So you don’t run into the problems we had with the District with not putting a cap on it and reducing the number of credits on a regular basis.  I don’t remember if, when the RECLAIM program was established, whether it required a reduction in credits on a certain basis.  But I know that the District didn’t regularly reduce the number of credits in the market.  In the Cap and Trade state program, there’s a guaranteed reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by the 10% reduction in the cap every year.

What is the difference between NOx and SOx and greenhouse emissions? 

NOx and SOx are chemical emissions versus greenhouse gases, which are carbon dioxide emissions.  The local air districts do not control greenhouse gas emissions.  Only the state does that.

What do you think is the main obstacle ahead for the AQMD?

South Coast Air District has looming deadlines to meet Federal air quality standards.  Those standards involve the ozone Federal standards.  We have to meet a new standard in 2023, which will require us to reduce NOx emissions by 45%.  A second deadline comes very soon after that in 2031, also an ozone requirement, and we will have to reduce NOx emissions by about 55%.  For the most part, NOx emissions come from mobile sources; from the tailpipe emissions from trucks, diesel trucks, cars.  The South Coast Air District doesn’t control mobile sources.  CARB controls them and the Federal government controls them.  So here is the challenge:  when we have to meet that deadline in the South Coast Air District, but we don’t control 80% that is driving that source of emissions, then it is pretty hard for us to do that.  At my last CARB board meeting in December, the CARB staff and chair pretty much admitted we are not going to meet the deadline and they are the people in charge of the mobile sources.  This came up when we discussed the CARB Mobile Source Strategies document that was recently put out.  In it, they just kind of ignored the 2023 and 2031 deadlines and went on to look at what is going to happen after those dates.  What can happen when you don’t meet the deadlines is the Federal government can step in and take over your implementation plan for your emission reductions and they can issue penalties, they can put on certain requirements to make you meet those deadlines.  One of the things they could say is, “No trucks on the road Monday Wednesday and Friday” or something like that.  Who knows what kind of a plan they could put in.  Even if they could be particularly onerous, they may decide that they can see why South Coast can’t do that so they could give some extra time.  It’s pretty much up in the air what would happen when we don’t meet those deadlines.  But in my mind, it is pretty certain we won’t meet those deadlines.

A lot of the programs AQMD funds are for electrifying trucks and for electrical infrastructure upgrades in low-income residences within Environmental Justice (EJ) communities.

Most of that funding comes through statutory means.  There’s the Carl Moyer program, which has been around for quite a while and was recently extended to 2045.  That program includes incentive funds for mobile sources.  An owner can turn in a truck or tractor (covers both on-road and off-road equipment), but must scrap the vehicle turned in and use the funds to replace it with a newer vehicle.  An owner can also use those funds to retrofit an existing vehicle to get it to a cleaner emission standard.  There’s a number of different programs, which we call incentive programs.  Some of the money comes through statutory means (a statute that was enacted to provide a source of funds) and some of it is coming through Cap and Trade now.  Some of the money is filtered down to the Air Districts through CARB allocations to use as incentive funding.  There is a program that comes under Cap and Trade for heavy duty incentives, where you are not required to scrap your existing truck.  The South Coast Air District also does a number of demonstration pilot projects.  There are two of them underway which are pretty significant, to study zero emission goods movement.  The demonstration  combines zero emission trucks with placement of infrastructure to determine what kind of infrastructure is needed and where.  It’s focused on goods movement within the South Coast area.  A lot of those trucks pick up goods at the port and take them out to the Inland Empire.  It’s a study of what is the range on those trucks, where can they charge and how long do they need to charge.  So when we finally get to a zero emissions picture, we can determine how to accomplish a smooth operation that doesn’t require trucks sitting in charging stations and having down time due to charging requirements.  There are two projects, one is being done with Volvo trucks and another one is being done with Daimler trucks.  Those two truck companies will each study zero emission goods movement.

You have so much information to provide on the emission programs, we’ll have to bring you back to another one of our monthly programs focused on Climate Change.  Transitioning to your other job, what are your most proud moments as a Rolling Hills Estates council member?

With our city government, I am pretty proud of our city council and our city staff.  I think that a lot of other cities in the region would look to us as a pretty good example of how city government should run.  We have excellent staff and we have a city council that is respectful of one another and works together well. You have not seen in the history of our city, a lot of contention or conflict among city council members.  We’ve always been pretty supportive of each other.  We don’t always agree.  We’re not all in the same Party by any means, but there is a recognition that what we do is not partisan.  When you’re dealing with local issues it’s primarily non-partisan issues that we are dealing with.  One of the things I did while on this council is I established the Environmental Advisory Committee.  And it is the only one on the Peninsula; it may be  the only one in the South Bay.  It’s a committee that looks at environmental issues and advises the city council on them.  It came about when the State government passed the Global Warming Solutions Act in 2006, and they asked cities to do climate action plans.  And so the South Bay Cities COG set up a program to help our cities do that by hiring a consultant that would then work with the 15 cities within the SBCCOG to address climate change and put in Climate Change action plans in each of their cities.  I established the RHE committee with the help of our staff and city council around 2010 or 2011.  At the same time the South Bay Cities COG established the South Bay Environmental Services Committee  (SBESC) to address environmental issues as an arm of the South Bay Cities COG.

How did you get interested in the Clean Power Alliance?

The Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) program, in which cities and counties may buy or generate electricity for residents and businesses within their communities, is an idea that Debby Stegura [new RHE City Council member] pointed out to me.  When Los Angeles County came in and wanted to establish a CCA program, that’s when I got interested in helping to get it established.  We got our city involved in it through the Environmental Advisory Committee.  My city, Rolling Hills Estates, and South Pasadena were the first cities to join the county.  Michael Caccioti is a councilman in South Pasadena and he sits on the AQMD board with me.  It was because of our experience on the AQMD board that we got our cities involved and were the first cities to join the county.

What obstacles are facing RHE?

All cities, because of the pandemic, are going to be worrying about their financial futures.  And, our city has been in very good shape, fiscally, but a good portion of the revenue comes from our sales tax and we would expect that to come down considerably because of the pandemic and businesses closing.  So, that is a warning sign blinking in the future that we need to pay attention to.  Our other sources of revenue are building and construction permits, but also property tax, which hasn’t been affected.  Our city is pretty well-run and you don’t hear about contentious items coming out of our city.

Post Interview Question – What is your next adventure and focus, now that you’ve retired from RHE City Council, SCAQMD and CARB?

That is the hardest question. I don’t know. I want to recess for now, reset and decide over time what direction to take. When it is safe to travel again, I would like to plan a few trips that are on my bucket list and I presently have a list of books to read.


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