In the 1970s, the smog in Southern California was so bad we couldn’t even see the nearby San Gabriel Mountains from downtown. Smog alerts forced school kids indoors, canceled outdoor events and sent people to emergency rooms. In 2015, our air may look cleaner, but we still have much to do to eliminate air pollution. We also now face the added challenge of tackling climate change.

During his inaugural address last week, Gov. Jerry Brown introduced new and ambitious environmentally focused energy goals for California. He proposes increases in electricity from renewable sources, a 50-percent cut in petroleum use by cars and trucks, doubling energy efficiency for existing buildings, while also making heating fuels cleaner. The governor wants to accomplish all this by 2030.

We applaud the Governor’s efforts to protect our environment and address climate change. But the proposed goals will not come cheaply, with additional costs pinching the wallet of every Californian.  We feel the need to ask an important question: How do we get there without emptying our pocketbooks and further burdening millions already living in poverty?  

California’s climate change initiative and existing environmental law are driving our state toward policies that will require fundamental changes in the way Californians think about and consume energy. 

The state law, better known as AB 32, requires Californians to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that contribute to climate change by more than 80 percent by the year 2050. The Federal Clean Air Act focuses on reducing air pollution —emissions such as NOx and particulate matters — that create smog. The federal law will require a 75 to 90 percent reduction in combustion emissions over the next 15 years. 

Ironically, Southern California already has the most aggressive emissions control measures in the world. Yet we still suffer from the worst air quality in the nation, particularly in the South Coast and San Joaquin Valley districts. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines them as “extreme” ozone non-attainment zones. Poor air quality costs everyone, and all too frequently, it’s the most vulnerable who are at risk. 

Study after study shows California has a huge health disparity problem that cuts along economic, ethnic and racial divides. This disparity adversely affects Californians living in communities situated near pollution-affected corridors including freeways, ports and rail depots. For example, data for the I-710 corridor show high levels of air pollutants from diesel particulate emissions, traffic congestion and high truck volumes linked to various health problems including asthma, lung disease symptoms and chronic bronchitis. This costs us all. A California Department of Public Health study shows statewide costs of asthma hospitalizations were over $1 billion in 2010. 

While the transportation sector is California’s biggest emissions challenge, it also offers the greatest opportunity to improve our quality of life. More than 80 percent of the region’s NOx emissions, or air pollution, and more than 40 percent of the region’s GHG emissions comes from the transportation sector. 

Thanks to clean-burning compressed natural gas (CNG) fueling, today’s buses no longer pour out pollution at every stop and turn. By converting from gasoline or diesel to CNG in the heavy duty transportation sector — big rig trucks, cargo ships and railways — we can help reduce smog and greenhouse gases TODAY. And, in less than five years, we will have new even cleaner natural gas engines that can reduce NOx emissions by 90 percent, almost entirely eliminating particulate exhaust pollution.  

As the governor noted, solutions must be compatible with an abundant economy and human well-being. Reducing emissions and cleaning up our air quality requires investments in technology and infrastructure. But not everyone can afford to pay for expensive solutions. With roughly one-fifth of our population living in poverty and one-third of American households living paycheck to paycheck, we cannot afford to break an already fragile regional economy as we move to meet our goals. We need an inclusive and pragmatic approach. 

By sending market signals that all cost-effective solutions will be considered, California can accelerate the development of even cleaner technologies and help drive down the cost of new engines. This approach has helped bring down the cost of solar energy.

Gov. Brown has outlined tough new goals to reduce smog and cut greenhouse gases. To achieve them, we need an all-of-the-above solution that includes conservation, energy efficiency, renewables, electricity AND natural gas. 

Including natural gas in California’s long-term energy mix gives us a clean, affordable way to cut smog and reduce GHG emissions now. Natural gas provides an affordable pathway to deliver on the governor’s vision for a healthy and prosperous California. 

Why wait until 2030 for cleaner air and a healthier environment?

About the author: Dennis Arriola is the President and CEO of Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas). SoCalGas is the nation’s largest natural gas utility, serving 21 million consumers through 5.8 million meters in more than 500 communities. The company’s service territory encompasses approximately 20,000 square miles in diverse terrain throughout Central and Southern California, from Visalia to the Mexican border.

Arriola President & CEO of Southern California Gas Company.