Study likely to intensify 'California-car' debate

January 17, 1994|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer

The debate on "California cars" and cleaner air in Maryland returns to the fast lane this week with the release of a study by a Johns Hopkins University professor.

At the center of the long-running controversy is this question: Should smoggy East Coast states adopt the same strict limits on auto emissions that exist in California?

The auto industry says no, and it wants Maryland and other states to accept slightly "dirtier" but less expensive vehicles than in California.

Some environmentalists, however, say the industry proposal is an Edsel. "Any state that's looked at it . . . shouldn't take it seriously," says Paul Billings, a spokesman for the American Lung Association in Washington.

The auto industry expects support for its position from the new study, to be released today. The author, Dr. Hugh Ellis, a professor of environmental engineering at Johns Hopkins, would not discuss the results in advance.

But some people who have seen advance drafts say the study questions the cost-effectiveness of adopting California's emission limits in Maryland, where smog is much less of a problem than in Los Angeles.

At the behest of Maryland officials, nearly half the $50,000 cost of the Hopkins study was paid by the auto and oil industries, while the remainder came from: a group of electric utilities, two environmental groups, Maryland's chamber of commerce and the state. Everyone involved in the funding of the study has seen drafts.

Bill Winters, a spokesman for the auto manufacturers, points out that state-sponsored studies in Pennsylvania and Virginia also have rejected California cars.

However, others familiar with the Hopkins study say it does little more than review previously published and conflicting studies.

"There's no new analysis here," says John Quinn, Clean Air Act issues manager for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. The utility supports requiring California cars.

Maryland environmental officials say the Hopkins study won't shake their belief that less-polluting cars, California-style, will be needed to clean up Baltimore's air.

But Merrilyn Zaw-Mon, air management director for the state Department of the Environment, acknowledges that the study is likely to increase political pressure on Maryland and other states at least to consider the compromise proposed by the auto industry.

Rolled out last month, the plan is designed to block efforts to require that all cars sold from Maine to Virginia meet California standards beginning in 1998.

Auto manufacturers are offering to design and build new cars and trucks over the next decade that would be cleaner than federal law now requires. The compromise would reduce smog and save consumers several hundred dollars on each new vehicle, the industry says.

"It gives [states] what they need," says Andrew H. Card Jr., president of the American Automobile Manufacturers Association.

The industry's new cars will be "almost 99 percent clean," he contends, but will be cheaper and more feasible technologically than California cars.

An evaluation of the auto industry's proposal indicates it would allow 30 percent more hydrocarbon emissions and 15 percent more nitrogen oxides by the year 2020 than would the California clean-car program, Ms. Zaw-Mon says.

The industry hopes its offer will end a three-year legal and political dispute.

Several East Coast states, including Maryland, have taken steps to embrace California's emissions program, which requires that progressively cleaner vehicles be built and sold.

Detroit and the oil industry, which fears being forced to sell new fuels to run the cleaner vehicles, have lobbied state lawmakers and gone to court to block the California car campaign.

The compromise plan is attracting some attention. Maryland officials, who have been ardent advocates of California cars, have doubts about the industry's new plan but are considering it nonetheless. "I don't believe in closing any doors," says David A. C. Carroll, Maryland's environment secretary, though he labels the compromise "not acceptable as it currently stands."

Highway funds at stake

The stakes are high. Baltimore, Washington, and more than 30 other urban areas in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic face federally imposed building restrictions and loss of highway funds if they do not come up with ozone-reduction plans by November.

Ozone, also known as smog, is produced when hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides from motor vehicles, industries, power plants and other sources mingle in the air on hot, sunny days. It can aggravate chronic breathing problems, but also may cause gasping and wheezing among otherwise healthy children and adults who venture outdoors.

Baltimore and its suburbs have the sixth-worst ozone pollution among the nation's urban areas, and the Washington area is 10th worst. Cars and trucks are the source of 40 percent of the artificial hydrocarbons in Maryland's air and of 36 percent of the nitrogen oxides.

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