Environmentalists seek to clear the air Auto-emissions bill would crack down on smog.

November 12, 1991|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Evening Sun Staff

Call it "Car Wars, the Sequel."

Buoyed by a new smog-fighting accord among northeastern states, environmentalists are renewing their drive to get Maryland to adopt California's strict auto emission rules.

State Sen. John A. Pica Jr., D-City, announced today that he will introduce a bill in the General Assembly in January to require all new cars and trucks sold in Maryland to be equipped with more stringent emission controls. Pica said the bill would produce "significant gains" in efforts to clean up ozone pollution in Baltimore, which ranks as one of the smoggiest urban areas in the country, and in the Washington suburbs, which also suffer from unhealthful summertime ozone levels.

But the proposed legislation, which would go beyond federal Clean Air Act requirements, is opposed by the auto and oil industries and by car dealers. They warn that it could hurt them and the state's economy, jack up the costs of driving in Maryland and still not do much to curb pollution.

The same bill, sponsored by Del. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, passed the House this year, but died without a hearing in a Senate committee after auto manufacturers and car and truck dealers mobilized to block it.

This time, Pica said, he believes he has enough support in the Senate to get it out of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, of which he is a member. The measure is backed by environmental and health groups.

But the position of one pivotal player -- Gov. William Donald Schaefer -- is unclear. Schaefer already has indicated his support of California's car pollution controls, and state Environment Secretary Robert Perciasepe chairs the Northeast Ozone Transport Commission, which voted two weeks ago to pursue state adoption by legislation or regulation.

Yet administration officials have refused to commit themselves to support either the Frosh-Pica bill or outline any other course of action.

"We're anxious to try to work out the problems with everyone," said Steve Larsen, a legislative aide for Schaefer. Larsen said that "whatever form it takes, the governor will be doing something, whether it's a bill or regulations."

Maryland joined with eight other northeastern states and the District of Columbia last month in pledging to adopt California's car and truck pollution controls, which are the only alternative to federal rules for states under the Clean Air Act.

One northeastern state, Connecticut, has refused to go along with the regional pact, while Rhode Island and Vermont abstained.

Maryland officials say California's vehicle pollution program offers the best chance of curbing smog in the Baltimore and Washington areas, because cars and trucks are responsible for more than half of the hydrocarbons that combine with nitrogen oxides under hot summer sunlight to form ozone.

Ozone can irritate the lungs and cause breathing problems for children, the elderly, people with lung ailments and even healthy people who exercise or work outdoors.

The state's car dealers, who opposed the bill before, say their concerns would be eased if Maryland's adoption of the California emission requirements did not take effect until other states followed suit.

The dealers fear they could lose business unless their competitors in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Washington also must sell the less polluting cars and trucks.

"People would find a way to buy and register vehicles outside of Maryland, especially if they cost a little less," said Joseph P. Carroll, executive vice president of the Maryland New Car and Truck Dealers Association, which has about 325 members.

State officials estimate that equipping cars and trucks with better emission controls and adjusting engine performance to curb pollution could add $70 to $170 per vehicle while reducing hydrocarbon emissions by 46 percent more than federally mandated controls.

With neighboring states committed to the same course of action, Maryland officials say the state's car dealers should have little to fear. And environmentalists oppose making the state's action contingent on others acting.

The auto and oil industries, meanwhile, are urging the state to hold off in following in California's footsteps, warning that it could increase costs of cars and fuels in Maryland without clearing the air.

The federal law already mandates a new reformulated, less polluting gasoline be sold in smog-ridden cities such as Baltimore by 1995, but California is considering requiring its own special blend to deal with its unusually severe smog. Oil industry officials warn that pump prices could jump 20 cents a gallon if they must produce the California fuel for consumption in the Northeast.

Maryland officials say they only are looking at adopting the car and truck emission controls required in the California program, not the fuel recipe.

But Gerald Esper, an engineer with the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association, contends that Maryland and other northeastern states will get only a fraction of the air-quality benefits that California will unless they also require that state's cleaner-burning fuel. And he warns that it could cost $500 to $1,000 per car or truck to meet California pollution standards, more than twice the official estimates.

Frosh countered that the auto industry is simply continuing to resist tighter pollution controls.

"The auto industry fought hard to keep the federal [emission] standards lower," he said, "and they fought the ability of states to adopt their own standards.

"Now they're fighting our ability to clean up the air under the only tool available to us under the federal Clean Air Act," Frosh said, adding that federal rules "are not tight enough to clean up the air in Maryland."

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