ANNAPOLIS -- In what one member described as "the major environmental vote" of the 1991 session, the House of Delegates approved legislation yesterday that backers say would reduce polluting vehicle emissions in Maryland at twice the rate required by federal law.
By a 75-59 vote, the House sent to the Senate legislation that would set the level of vehicle emissions in Maryland using the same stiff standards set by the state of California. The California alternative is an option specifically offered states as a way of to meet overall clean-air standards adopted by Congress in the Clean Air Act of 1990.
If Maryland adopts the California program, manufacturers will be put on notice to begin in two years supplying Maryland car and truck dealers with vehicles equipped with enhanced emission reduction equipment.
The extra cost would be between $70 and $170 per vehicle.
The measure, which faces an uncertain future in the Senate with only two full weeks remaining in the 90-day session, is opposed by car manufacturers and by Maryland car and truck dealers, who lobbied unsuccessfully to kill the bill on the House floor.
Joseph P. Carroll, executive vice president of the Maryland New Car and Truck Dealers Association, said his organization's 300 dealers fear that they will not be able to exchange the specially equipped Maryland vehicles with dealers in neighboring states and will lose out-of-state customers.
Dealers also could be hurt in leasing and fleet sales, he said, and the cleaner vehicles will simply cost buyers more.
"We're just fearful . . . our members will get hurt financially," Mr. Carroll said.
But the legislation, pushed by Delegate Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery, and backed by health and environmental organizations, was sold as a means of meeting overall clean-air goals by cutting down on the biggest single source of air pollution: car and truck exhaust.
Members of the House burst into applause when it passed.
By making big reductions in vehicle emissions, Mr. Frosh and other supporters argued, it will be less likely that the state will have to clampdown on emissions from businesses, industries and farms to meet federal clean-air standards.
"If you have to get the reductions from them, the impact is going to be draconian," Mr. Frosh said.
Once a state adopts the California program -- as New York, Massachusetts and Maine have done -- auto manufacturers are required to introduce higher and higher percentages of steadily cleaner cars. By 1997, manufacturers must start selling what are called "low emission" and "ultra low emission" cars.
Eventually, some electric cars -- cars with "zero emissions" -- would have to be phased in.
In Maryland, almost 60 percent of the organic compound emissions that pollute the air come from vehicles, said Robert Perciasepe, the state's secretary of environment and a strong supporter of the bill.
If minimum Clean Air Act requirements were met, those emissions would be reduced by 22 percent to 34 percent by 2007. But if the California program were implemented, those emissions would be reduced by 58 percent by 2007.
"If I don't get these reductions here, I'm going to have to get them somewhere else," Mr. Perciasepe said. "It is a solid box. We can only have so many air emissions, and we will have to get [the reductions] somewhere else."
In California, where traffic and smog problems are enormous, emissions are controlled not only from vehicles but also from marine vessels, off-road motorcycles, pesticide applications, dry cleaning establishments, large commercial bakeries, deep-fat friers and livestock waste.
The Clean Air Act also requires Maryland and other Northeastern states to work together to address regional air pollution problems. Mr. Perciasepe said that if Maryland adopts the California program, it will help him leverage other states in the region to do likewise.
Maryland's air pollution problems are worst in three areas: the Washington and Baltimore metropolitan areas and the northeastern corner of the state, which is affected by pollution drifting in from Philadelphia and Wilmington, Del.