Can West Coast-style cars clear East Coast's smog?

February 02, 1992|By Timothy B. Wheeler and Thomas W. Waldron

Can Baltimore's unhealthy air be cleared by California cars?

Or will the West Coast import send auto and gas prices soaring, putting thousands of Marylanders out of work?

The Schaefer administration and environmentalists are locked in high-stakes lobbying war with the oil and auto industries over whether Maryland should join California in setting stringent limits on automobile tailpipe emissions.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer's top environmental priority this legislative session is a bill that would require all cars and light trucks sold in the state three years from now to meet California rules, which are stricter than federal standards.

Advocates say the "California car bill" could help solve the state's stubborn air pollution problems, but auto and oil interests say the state would pay dearly and the air would be no cleaner.

The debate is raging up and down the East Coast, where 12 states from Virginia to Maine have pledged to go beyond the federal Clean Air Act to clear up the smog that blankets the Northeast each summer.

On Friday, Massachusetts became the first to adopt the California standards. New York also has proposed rules, and Virginia's General Assembly held a hearing last week on a bill requiring low-emission cars in the state's Washington suburbs.

The lobbying here is dominated more by bar charts and technical jargon than the usual schmoozing over dinner in Annapolis restaurants. But the rhetoric is emotional and bitter, with each side accusing the other of fudging the facts, scaremongering and outright lying.

Auto and oil industry experts are flying into Maryland from Detroit and Chicago. Gas stations around the state are handing their customers fliers urging them to call or write legislators.

"I've been hearing all sorts of things," said Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., D-Baltimore County. "People are grabbing me, telling me gas will cost $2 a gallon, that if you take your car out of state they won't have the proper gasoline."

"It's been built into a frenzy," complained Maryland's environment secretary, Robert Perciasepe. Opponents have made it sound like "there'll be nobody left employed in the state of Maryland," he said.

Industry spokesmen counter that state officials are equally guilty of exaggeration. "Some of their numbers are racing away too," said Michael McDonald, director of the Maryland Petroleum Council.

At issue is whether Maryland needs to do more than required by federal law to rid the Baltimore and Washington areas of their summertime smog.

Ozone, the chief ingredient in smog, is created when hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere react chemically in sunlight. Most man-made hydrocarbons and a third of the nitrogen oxides in the air come from motor vehicles.

Although ozone in the upper atmosphere shields people from ultraviolet rays, at ground level it irritates the lungs and can cause coughing, wheezing, flu-like symptoms and even chest pain. It also can damage crops, forests and man-made materials.

Four million Marylanders breathe harmful levels of ozone in the summertime, according to Mr. Perciasepe.

The Baltimore area, where ozone levels exceeded federal standards on 15 days last summer, has the sixth-worst smog of any city in the country. The Washington area, which had four bad ozone days last year, had the 10th-dirtiest air.

State officials feel that Maryland must switch to California cars to have any hope of complying with the federal Clean Air Act. But opponents say existing federal pollution controls are enough.

And some maintain that nothing shy of banning all cars and trucks will have an impact because so much of the state's smog-forming pollutants come from trees.

Federal law, strengthened by Congress two years ago, requires the state to eliminate unhealthful levels of ozone in the Baltimore area by 2005. It calls for a 42 percent reduction in hydrocarbon emissions, but some studies say an 80 percent reduction may be necessary to wipe out smog.

Hydrocarbons do occur naturally, given off by trees and plants. While estimates vary, scientists say natural sources may account for 25 percent to 50 percent of the hydrocarbons in the Northeast.

But state officials say people, not trees, are responsible for the pollutants that cause unhealthful smog levels.

The Clean Air Act already requires lower tailpipe emissions nationwide, but the tighter California standards would remove another 4.4 tons of hydrocarbons daily from Baltimore's air by 2005, state officials say.

While that's a small part of the 149 tons coming daily from motor vehicles now, proponents say the benefits would increase as new cars and trucks replaced those on the road now.

They say that by 2020, the area's auto-generated hydrocarbon emissions would drop 17 percent under the California standards, compared with only a 9 percent reduction under federal requirements. They say nitrogen oxide emissions would be cut in half.

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