The Shady Math Behind the Arena's "Net Zero-Emissions" Claim

A regulatory bait and switch, and three million trees go missing.

This week I’m going to write about the Clippers’ claim that their new arena, the Inglewood Basketball and Entertainment Center (IBEC), is a net zero-emissions project. It’s going to be a bit technical, but you’re smart. And you’re about to get smarter!

[deep breath of clean, emissions-free air]

Here’s something you might already know: When you build anything big in California, you’re responsible for producing a document explaining what your project is gonna do to the neighborhood, the community, and the planet. If it’s gonna cause harm — for example, it’ll make traffic worse, or increase air pollution — you have to a) quantify the harm and b) say how you plan to mitigate it. You show this document, called the Draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR), to the city (or county if it’s on county land); the city shares it with the public, which can then comment; you respond to the feedback from the public and the city and make adjustments accordingly. Once the city (the “lead agency”) approves the EIR, you can start building.

That sounds simple enough, but the EIR review/litigation process can take years and ultimately stall a project into submission. A few weeks ago, when we looked at the L.A. Live Community Benefit Agreement, it was the threat of suing over the EIR that gave a coalition of South Park residents enough leverage to win major concessions. That’s the beauty of the beast of EIRs, and of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) that mandates them: on the one hand, they drive up the cost of development because of the consultants, litigation, and sheer time it takes to get them through; on the other hand, CEQA gives regular people an avenue to sue over environmental hazards being planned for their backyard or, for that matter, anywhere else in California. On the other other hand, sometimes you can’t get a Target built.

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OK, so: The Clippers were going to be responsible for an EIR for IBEC (the arena), and then the public and the City of Inglewood would comment on it, and then it would be the City of Inglewood’s decision whether to approve it. (If no one sues along the way!)

Now, in 2016, the state of California passed a bill that gave major developments the option to zip through the EIR process if they could assert that the project would be zero net emissions to the California Air Resources Board (CARB). This bill, AB 900, had a bunch of baby bills for various megaprojects; one of those was AB 987, which basically said the Clippers could zip through the CEQA process if they proved they were zero net emissions, again, to CARB.

CARB review is completely separate from the EIR process, and unlike the EIR, there’s no enforcement mechanism and it’s not challengeable judicially (members of the public can’t take CARB to court over it). It’s not necessary to assert zero net emissions on your EIR — but, whatever you do claim or promise on your EIR can be sued down the line. And to be clear, the Clippers would not have needed to prove to CARB anything had they not wanted to accelerate the EIR process. Keep this in mind!

Thanks, Phil.

Now, simply by comparing Staples Center (Downtown LA, central, very accessible) with the proposed location in Inglewood (South Bay, transit desert) you might think that since more people will be driving, and since they’ll be driving farther, more greenhouse gases will be put into the air. Of course, you would be right. But to be “zero net emissions” just means all those net new GHG emissions need to be offset in some way (planting trees, putting solar panels on the roof, giving employees free transit passes). At least 50% of the offset needs to be local (i.e. within Inglewood city limits) — the rest can be literally anywhere. The Newhall Ranch development out by Santa Clarita, for example, offset their GHG by buying solar stoves for people in Africa.

Now here’s where things get a little hairy. When the Clippers first submitted their arithmetic to CARB, David Pettit, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a watchdog nonprofit for this stuff which backed both AB 900 and AB 987 through state legislator, detected some trickery. The Clippers assumed in their math that since Staples Center was losing roughly 50 games’ worth of trips (preseason + regular season + playoffs), and Inglewood was adding roughly 50 games’ worth of trips, all they were responsible for offsetting was — if you’ll allow me to simplify here —

50 home games x (Inglewood average trip length - Staples average trip length)

However, Pettit pointed out, Staples Center isn’t just going to sit vacant once the Clippers leave. Most of those 50 dates are going to be replaced. Therefore, the Clippers are creating ~50 new home dates’ worth of trips (in addition to 190 or so other events which the Clippers are already doing math for). CARB said, We agree with David, and the Clippers caved, and redid their math to act like all 41 regular season dates will be backfilled. This forced the Clippers to account for about 63 percent more GHG than they had originally. Big difference! They did this by tweaking their TDM plan, which was already iffy, but that is a WHOLE OTHER NEWSLETTER NOT FOR RIGHT NOW PLEASE SUBSCRIBE AND GIVE ME MONEY TO DO THIS.) CARB signed off on their application, and the Clippers got permission to accelerate through EIR review. Gonna remind you one more time here that the Clippers chose to pursue CARB blessing’s. Even once AB 987 was passed they could have said nevermind!

Now, fast forward to January, and David Pettit is reviewing the Draft EIR. Naturally he flips to page 597 to see if the Clippers just carried over the math from the updated CARB application, or if they went back to the original math. Folks,

Based on an evaluation of the past several years of Staples Center schedules, the consultant estimated that seven events would be backfilled at the Staples Center.

In other words, only seven Clipper home games would generate wholly new emissions. What about the other events? Up to 243 annual events (concerts, conventions, Joel Osteen roadshows) are anticipated at the new arena. Are those new events, or just re-locating from other locations around LA? Let’s have a look at the chart:

Ah. That “partial backfill scenario” (far right column), which is what the Clippers are working off, assumes that the new arena will just be moving every single one of these other events from other venues. “Partial backfill” indeed!

Writing off all these events as relocated lowers the net GHG increase, which reduces the amount of mitigation the Clippers need to do, which saves them money. (What’s the point of having the Richest Owner In Sports (TM) if that guy is going to cut corners on greenhouse gas mitigation to save dough?)

“I saw that and I thought, this is just more bullshit,” Pettit told me over the phone last week. “Why are they telling CARB one thing and they’re telling the public another?”

The weird thing about this is, Pettit pointed out, this bait-and-switch opens the Clippers up to lawsuit. Anyone who has commented on the EIR (and there are a couple thousand pages of comments from Inglewood residents, nonprofits, public servants, and Barbara Boxer) can sue on the EIR’s math using a baseline the Clippers already conceded to CARB was incorrect. Pettit says the NRDC doesn’t have a community client — i.e., no one from Inglewood has come to the NRDC asking to help them sue on environmental grounds. Besides, he said, he’s working on GHG offset legislation up in Sacramento that deals with this issue, and he sees that as the war and this the battle.

Not only that, you gotta wonder what was so important about CEQA fast-tracking in the first place, that made it worthwhile for the Clippers to pursue a net zero-emissions facility even in bad faith. AB 987 doesn’t exempt you from the EIR. It just sets a 270-day limit on the judicial processing time if litigation against the EIR is filed. And it’s not like City Hall was going to give the Clippers any trouble, so…was the net zero certification purely cosmetic?

“You’d have to ask Steve Ballmer and his lawyers,” Pettit said. “Somebody made a decision, We want the benefit of [AB 987] badly enough that we’re willing to go through [CARB] and have people take shots at us before the EIR even comes out…The Clippers have seven years left on their lease. [The Clippers’ lease actually ends in June 2024.] What’s the rush? I don’t really see why they needed to get special certification. In a way, it gave critics of the project an early heads up about how they were going to calculate the GHG emissions that we wouldn’t have had if they’d just produced the EIR and said, You have 45 days to comment on it, go for it.”

The other piece I couldn’t figure out is why the NRDC supported AB 987 knowing this kind of bait-and-switch could happen. (Didn’t they?) “Did I expect them to cheat? No. I didn’t think they would cheat,” Pettit said. “But based on the GHG calculations, they did cheat.”

And how much did they cheat? Well, the “partial backfill scenario” saves about 190,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from being mitigated over the arena’s 30-year life span. What does that number mean exactly? Take it away, EPA Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator:

The Golden One Arena where the Kings play, and the Chase Center where the Warriors play, both received special CARB certification assembly bills like AB 987. “I’m perhaps foolishly hopeful that these one-off bills [like AB 987] won’t happen anymore, that the legislature is sick of it,” Pettit said. “But I could be wrong about that. I personally think it’s a terrible way to make policy.”

But the NRDC keeps throwing its weight behind these measures…?

“Well, yeah,” Pettit said. “Sometimes, if we get the feeling that something is going to happen whether we’re at the table or not, it’s better to be at the table and make it the best that we can.

“There are some groups that think that that’s bad, and that we’re sellouts and that we should have just said no, and gotten rolled, and felt virtuous and moved on to the next losing fight. That’s not my view of how to do our work.”

Why does this all matter?

The Clippers are proposing an arena in a predominantly low-income, minority community that is at the center of the state’s housing affordability crisis. That arena is going to generate a ton of new traffic, which is going to pollute the air in that community, making life measurably shittier for people who live there. People who, I might add, have very little ability to actually derive any value from the arena being there! It’s not like they all get season tickets! They are not even the target audience!

It is the way of the world that societies build big arenas that they don’t need, but a check on that habit is in place, at least in California, and if everyone just cooperates — part of the deal with AB 987 is that the Clippers take steps to actively improve air quality in Inglewood — then it’s at least easier to live with. I didn’t even get into this in the newsletter because there wasn’t enough room, but if you don’t think the Clippers are approaching GHG calculations in good faith, would you expect their mitigation to be any better? And if they don’t, who will suffer as a result?

So what happens now?

The Inglewood city council will probably approve the EIR, and then there’s a 30-day statute of limitations for people to file suit. People either will or they won’t.

I’m working on getting an interview with one possible attorney in shining armor for this week. Until then, retired California senator Barbara Boxer will have to do:

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