'California' car bill passes, but will it be implemented? Other states control action on emissions

April 07, 1993|By Tom Bowman and Timothy B. Wheeler | Tom Bowman and Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writers

"California cars" are coming to Maryland. Or are they?

In the name of cleaner air, Marylanders shopping for new cars or light trucks could be required to buy specially equipped, low-emission models as early as 1997 under legislation given final approval by the state House of Delegates yesterday.

But the measure, which passed the House 123-to-2, has had so many conditions added to it at the behest of the auto and oil industries that some environmentalists fear the law might never take effect.

The so-called California cars law would not kick in, for instance, until at least two neighboring states join Maryland in adopting such requirements -- something that state officials acknowledge will take a year or two at best. And all bets are off if either California or the federal government alter their emission standards for new cars and light trucks.

"It's very watered down," complained Shelley Buckingham, spokeswoman for the American Lung Association. The chances for similar legislation in other states are "all very iffy," she said.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who took a spin around the State House in a low-emission car in February to promote the bill, insisted its approval yesterday was "a major, major accomplishment." Compromise was necessary to get the legislation passed, Mr. Schaefer said.

Under the measure, which cleared the Senate last week, new cars and light trucks sold in Marylander would be required to meet tough emissions standards identical to those in California, which has the dirtiest air in the country.

Those standards would add about $200 to the cost of a new car, according to the Schaefer administration, though the auto industry predicts the cost will be closer to $1,100 per vehicle.

The legislation, which would impose stricter emission limits on Maryland cars than federal law requires, had been pushed the past three years by the Schaefer administration to help reduce the smog that plagues the Baltimore and Washington metropolitan areas in summer.

Baltimore has the sixth worst smog, or ground-level ozone pollution, of any urban area in the country, and Washington has the 10th worst, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Ozone causes shortness of breath and lung inflammation among children and adults playing or working outdoors, and it can aggravate asthma, allergies and other chronic breathing problems.

Under the federal Clean Air Act, the state must reduce unhealthful levels of ozone-forming emissions in the Baltimore area by 2005 or face the loss of tens of millions of dollars in federal highway money.

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 one-third of the nitrogen oxides in the air come from motor vehicles, in the form of exhaust and fuel vapor leaks.

The auto and oil industries had opposed the bill, arguing that boosting car prices in Maryland would cost the state thousands of jobs. Fears voiced by the United Auto Workers that General Motors Corp. might close its assembly plant in Baltimore persuaded Del. John D. Jefferies, a city Democrat, to oppose the measure.

The other dissenter was an environmentalist, Montgomery County Democrat Leon G. Billings. He complained the measure had been "emasculated" by amendments added by Sen. Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Under one "trigger" added by Senator Baker, before Maryland can require low-emission vehicles, it must wait until 60 percent of the cars from Maine to Virginia -- including those in two neighboring jurisdictions -- also have to meet California's emission standards.

So far, four East Coast states with 54 percent of the region's vehicles have moved to require low-emission cars: Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York. But a federal court has invalidated New York's regulations, and the auto industry has filed suit to block Maine's rules.

Of neighboring states, only Pennsylvania has pledged to require low-emission vehicles this year, and action there awaits completion of a study ordered by state lawmakers.

If enough neighboring states do pass such legislation, Maryland's law would take effect two years later. The delay was billed as a way of giving the auto industry time to comply.

California's low-emission vehicle program, on which Maryland's is modeled, was approved late last year by the EPA, and cars are being manufactured for that state meeting the stringent emission limits.

The legislation approved yesterday specifically says that Maryland cars would have to comply with standards imposed in California. It also says that should California change its emission program in any way, the Maryland law would become invalid within two years unless Maryland lawmakers endorsed the changes.

An auto industry spokesman voiced only mild disapproval of Maryland's amended legislation. Although "a bit disappointed," Robert C. Veit of the American Automobile Manufacturers Association said he believed the bill now had enough "safeguards" to protect the industry.

Under the Clean Air Act, Maryland is charged with submitting a plan to the EPA in November 1994 spelling out measures for curbing smog in the Baltimore area by 2005 and in Washington by 1999. Given the uncertainty that the California cars bill will ever take effect here, state officials acknowledge they may have trouble getting the EPA to accept the measure as progress toward that goal.

But Robert Perciasepe, state environmental secretary, said he did not believe any of the conditions would prevent Maryland from requiring low-emission vehicles by 1998.

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