Nearly three decades after Peninsula cities began implementing bans on gas-powered leaf blowers, the effort has found a foothold at the state level, with Gov. Gavin Newsom signing a bill on Oct. 9 that will phase out their sales.
Among the dozens of bills that Newsom signed in his final action of the legislative session is Assembly Bill 1346, which was authored by Assembly member Marc Berman, D-Menlo Park, and which directs the California Air Resources Board to adopt regulations by July 2022 that would prohibit new "small off-road engines" — a category that includes gas-powered leaf blowers, generators, pressure washers and chainsaws — by 2024.
In making the case for the bill, Berman cited their environmental impact. In a June speech on the floor of the Assembly, he noted that daily emissions of air pollution from small engines are projected to surpass those from passenger cars this year.
"These emissions worsen air quality and negatively impact human health, causing asthma and lung disease and other awful health impacts on landscaping professionals who breathe in exhaust day in and day out," Berman said.
For cities like Palo Alto, Los Altos and Menlo Park — all of which are in Berman's district — a ban on gas-powered leaf blowers is far from new. Los Altos banned them in 1991, becoming the first jurisdiction in the area to do so. Menlo Park and Palo Alto followed suit in 1998 and 2005, respectively, though Menlo Park's law was subsequently overturned in a referendum and Palo Alto's, which applies exclusively to residential neighborhoods, has not been vigilantly enforced.
The new state law casts a wider net than these local ordinances. It applies to all devices with small off-road engines under 25 horsepower and unlike the local ordinances, which were prompted primarily by noise complaints, the state law focuses on greenhouse gas emissions and health impacts. The bill's passage makes California the first state to phase out gas-powered leaf blowers.
For some, particularly in the commercial sector, the shift could pose significant challenges, according to an analysis of AB 1346 by state Assembly staff. The analysis notes that for residential uses, rechargeable electric lawnmowers, leaf blowers and string trimmers have been "available for years and have significant market share." For commercial users, however, "there is very little market for zero-emission equipment as today's technology is relatively expensive and requires multiple batteries and/or frequent recharging and replacement."
Supporters of the bill hope to address the slow adoption of zero-emissions equipment by the commercial sector by both adopting the new restrictions and by appropriating $30 million in the budget to help small businesses make the switch. Minutes before the Senate voted 21-9 to approve the bill on Sept. 8, Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, argued that the law is necessary to foster the state's transition to cleaner equipment.
"Unless we put pressure on the industry, they're not going to take the steps necessary to get these better lower-emission or zero-emission generators onto the market and widely available for folks," Allen said.
Not everyone agrees. Opponents of the bill argued that the legislation will impose unreasonable restrictions on landscapers while doing very little to address climate change. Sen. Brian Dahle, R-Bieber, suggested at a Sept. 8 hearing on the bill that a switch to electric equipment would make generators less reliable.
"When the power is out, how are you going to charge your battery so that you can supposedly keep your refrigerator on?" Dahle asked during a Sept. 8 hearing on AB 1346. "We're converting everything to power because, for some reason, this Legislature hates fuel, which is very sustainable, easy to access and, when the power is off, you can still use it."
Assembly member Devon Mathis, R-Visalia, similarly argued that the bill would cause more harm than good. He characterized the bill at a Sept. 9 hearing as one that would create "severe regulations for the businesses that use this equipment without providing anywhere close to adequate funding to support the rebate programs necessary to support this transition."
"Many of these businesses are small and minority-owned and are predominant professions for Latino communities involving landscape, tree care and construction," Mathis said, before the Assembly approved the bill by a 49-21 vote.
Supporters of AB 1346 counter that the bill does not regulate use of existing gas-powered equipment but only purchase of new equipment. They also note that the bill includes exceptions for farmers and emergency responders. Assembly member Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, who worked with Berman to advance the bill and secure the funding, argued in a statement Monday that the bill would help address both the environmental and health impacts of small gas engines.
"It's time we phased out these super polluters, and help small landscaping businesses transition to cleaner alternatives," Gonzalez said in a statement Monday.
Berman's bill has also garnered support from organizations such as Sierra Club California, Union of Concerned Scientists and Coalition of Clean Air. Bill Magavern, policy director for Coalition for Clean Air, said in a statement that AB 1346 will "protect Californians' health by cleaning up the shockingly high pollution from small off-road engines like leaf blowers and lawn mowers." Daniel Barad, policy advocate with Sierra Club California, said the bill will "curb toxic pollution in California neighborhoods by addressing emissions from leaf blowers, lawn mowers and other small off-road engines."
"This bill is another important step towards breathable air and a livable climate in California," Barad said in a statement.