The Samoa pulp mill spews emissions in 2004. | Photo courtesy Jennifer Kalt, Humboldt Baykeeper.


In a press release issued Wednesday evening, a coalition of local environmental groups accused city and county planners of employing a harmful and dishonest “accounting trick” in the process of developing a regional Climate Action Plan

The groups say Humboldt County, as lead agency in the plan’s development, has resorted to “adopting fuzzy math” to achieve state targets for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Specifically, the environmental organizations argue that the county plans to sidestep meaningful action on reducing GHG emissions by taking credit for the emission reductions already achieved over the past three decades through the closure of industrial polluters, including the local sawmills and pulp mills.

“Through clever accounting, Humboldt County is proposing a Climate Action Plan that fails to actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Matt Simmons, staff attorney at the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), says in Wednesday’s press release.

“In other words,” adds Humboldt Waterkeeper in a release of its own, “the county wants to take credit in the Climate Action Plan for plant closures over the last three decades that the county government had nothing to do with.”

Humboldt County Planning and Building Director John Ford says these descriptions are both unfair and inaccurate. 

“I strongly disagree with the characterization of that press release and I’m disappointed that it was issued without really having a conversation, particularly with me, about what we’re really trying to do,” he told the Outpost on Thursday.

Ford said that he and others who’ve been working on the plan, including staff from all seven incorporated cities in the county and outside firm Rincon Consultants, share the exact same goals being advanced by the environmental groups — namely, protecting the environment from catastrophic climate change by doing as much as possible to reduce GHG emissions.

A key step in that process, Ford said, is drafting a regional Climate Action Plan that the state will actually sign off on, or “qualify” as meeting the goals set forth in Senate Bill 32 and other legislation, and a plan can’t be qualified unless it sets realistic benchmarks and demonstrates how they’ll be achieved. 

A bit of background: The State of California has set an ambitious goal of slashing GHG emissions to 48 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. Local jurisdictions across the state have been asked to develop regional Climate Action Plans that demonstrate how they intend to achieve that target.

Over the past five years, Humboldt County has been working with local cities and Rincon Consultants to draft a regional Climate Action Plan, and they came up with one that, per the longstanding requests of local environmental groups, did not factor in the region’s declines in industrial point source pollution

But the county hit a snag in its preparation of an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for that draft plan: Rincon’s consultants were skeptical that it would be qualified by the state.

“The EIR consultant pushed back on us and said, ‘Hey, the things you’re proposing, we need to see evidence that those can be achieved,’” Ford said. “We can’t write an EIR based on promises that we’re going to get 18,000 new electric vehicles and convert 11,000 existing homes to [fully] electric [appliances]. … We came to the realization that many of the measures in the current [draft plan] are not achievable.”

Cristin Kenyon, development services director with the City of Eureka, agreed.

“For instance,” she said, “[the draft plan] said we’d get 952 housing units with all-electric [hookups] built, but we’re only averaging 20 new houses a year.”

The priority right now, Kenyon said, is getting a qualified Climate Action Plan.

“I think we’re all aligned in that we want to get the CAP done as fast as possible since it’s been five years, and we really want a qualified CAP because without that, nobody will take it seriously,” Kenyon said. “The people who wrote that press press release … we feel same way. We all want to be as ambitious as possible” in reducing emissions.

Ford argued that this was the only path forward.

“We’re dead in the water now, because the money for an EIR can only be used if it’s a qualified CAP,” he said. “We’re adrift without a rudder and without a sail. So the thing I’d like us to do is reconsider where we’re at and establish two goals: one, achieve maximum greenhouse gas reductions from a CAP that are feasible — we need to qualify what’s feasible. And, two, achieve a qualified CAP.”

That may entail using Humboldt County’s 1990 pollution levels as the baseline, complete with all those emission-spewing industrial sources, according to Ford.

“The purpose [of the plan] is to get to qualified, but we’re still intending to be as ambitious as possible [in reducing GHG emission],” he said. 

On the advice of Rincon Consultants, county staff plans to redraft the regional Climate Action Plan to better articulate GHG-reduction measures that are more precise and achievable, according to Ford. The associated Environmental Impact Report will eventually go before the Board of Supervisors for approval, at which point this debate will almost certainly resume.

Here’s the press release from the local environmental groups, including EPIC, the Coalition for Responsible Transportation Priorities, Humboldt Baykeeper, the Northcoast Environmental Center, 350 Humboldt and the Redwood Coalition for Climate and Environmental Responsibility:

Humboldt County Undermines Climate Action Plan

Humboldt County environmental advocates are demanding that local jurisdictions take climate planning seriously. Spurred by the advocacy of local environmental groups, Humboldt County began developing a regional Climate Action Plan five years ago. In those five years, worldwide atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have increased by ten parts per million (from 408 to 418 ppm). Meanwhile, a draft plan released in April 2022 has languished, and now Humboldt County is proposing to weaken the Climate Action Plan by adopting fuzzy math to limit the amount of climate action necessary to meet state targets.

Humboldt County is proposing to ignore state guidance that directs jurisdictions to avoid quantifying point source emissions in their Climate Action Plans because local jurisdictions are generally preempted from regulating these kinds of emissions. By including point source emissions, Humboldt County can claim climate action without actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Here’s how: Climate targets are based off of 1990 emissions estimates. Since 1990, and unrelated to climate change, a number of large point sources of greenhouse gas emissions have closed, like the Samoa pulp mill in 2008. As a result, by considering point source emissions like the Samoa pulp mill, Humboldt County is proposing to claim that it has already met or almost met its greenhouse gas reduction targets without reducing current emissions at all.

Climate activists are furious at the misdirection.

“Through clever accounting, Humboldt County is proposing a Climate Action Plan that fails to actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said Matt Simmons, Staff Attorney at the Environmental Protection Information Center. “We know that climate change is directly impacting the North Coast, from sea level rise to warmer waters in salmon-bearing rivers to increased fire behavior. Failure to plan for emissions reductions fails Humboldt.”

“Through this climate bait-and-switch, Humboldt County is only making attainment of future climate reduction targets more difficult,” said Colin Fiske, Executive Director of the Coalition for Responsible Transportation Priorities. “We are obligated to reach net-zero emissions by 2045. The path to reach that target is virtually impossible without ambitious action now.” “Rising ocean temperatures are harming a wide range of marine organisms off our coast, and the Humboldt Bay area is ground zero for impacts from sea level rise, which is increasing at roughly double the rate of other areas, threatening our remaining salt marshes and other ecosystems that make the Bay so unique,” said Jen Kalt, Executive Director of Humboldt Baykeeper. “Humboldt County needs to be part of the global solution to climate change and that means actual emissions reductions.”

“We know what we need to do to reduce our emissions and fight the climate crisis—we need more walkable communities, more bike infrastructure, more public transit, and less sprawl—but apparently Humboldt County lacks the will to actually do what is necessary,” said Caroline Griffith, Executive Director of the Northcoast Environmental Center. “This is a failure of leadership, not of science.”

“Climate change is already wreaking havoc on people in this country with fires, floods, drought, and extreme heat,” said Nancy Ihara of the 350 Humboldt Steering Committee. “It is hard to imagine that an imperfect, but at least aspirational document, Humboldt County’s draft CAP is to be replaced by one that does almost nothing. Let’s pick our highest priorities and get them done!”

Climate advocates point to other areas where Humboldt County has failed to take climate change seriously. The county has yet to create a single staff position dedicated to climate action. In 2019, the Board of Supervisors moved to create a Climate Advisory Committee. Climate activists are still waiting for that committee to be formed. Environmental advocates had to threaten litigation to force the incorporation of greenhouse gas reduction measures for the North McKay Subdivision. One of the Humboldt County Planning Commissioners has expressed a belief that climate action was part of “Agenda 21” an “extremist conspiracy theory about a secret plot to impose a totalitarian world government in the name of environmentalism,” as summarized by the Lost Coast Outpost. And if the county doesn’t get its act together and adopt a serious Climate Action Plan soon, it will also be leaving money on the table - like the $4.6 billion in federal Climate Pollution Reduction Grants available to communities that have adopted a plan by March of next year.

“Environmental voters are going to be looking at what elected officials actually do to fight the climate crisis,” said Melodie Meyer, co-director of the Redwood Coalition for Climate and Environmental Responsibility. “We are tired of empty promises. We need leaders to actually lead.”