Northeast divided on emissions rules

January 31, 1994|By Newsday

A showdown looms tomorrow when representatives of 12 Northeastern states -- including Maryland -- and the District of Columbia take a crucial vote on a plan to ban the sale of cars that don't meet California's strict tailpipe emission standards, while paving the way for widespread use of electric cars.

The outcome of the vote by an obscure, 13-member body called the Ozone Transport Commission is likely to have a far-reaching impact on the lives of tens of millions of people from Maine to northern Virginia.

In addition to requiring emissions control equipment that would add at least $60 to the cost of an average car, the rules mandate gradual increases in sales of electric cars.

The new rules are being implemented in California beginning with the 1995 model year, and a favorable commission vote would mean they could be in place throughout the Northeast as early as the 1996 model year.

"This is a very important vote," said New York Environmental Conservation Commissioner Thomas Jorling. The plan's rejection "would certainly call into question our ability to deliver on the promise of the Clean Air Act to the American people to achieve healthful air through cost-efficient solutions."

But the auto industry has aggressively opposed the California rules, arguing that they would be costly and would reduce smog only marginally. Late last week, the industry picked up a potent ally when New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman said her state would vote against the proposal.

Ms. Whitman's announcement means that at least four states represented on the commission now are expected to vote against the California rules, while five states including New York are in favor.

That leaves three states -- Maryland, Pennsylvania and Connecticut -- and the District of Columbia as the swing votes. The governors in the three states have been under heavy pressure from state legislators who oppose the California rules.

"We're in a very sticky situation here. It's a public relations nightmare," said Pam DiSalvo, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources.

Representatives of the auto industry predict a legal challenge would be likely if the commission votes for the change. "I think there's a lot of things we could do to legally stop it," said Mark Slywynsky, counsel to the American Automobile Manufacturers Association.

But a favorable vote would be a major step because of the unusual powers that Congress gave the ozone commission when it was created in 1990 in an effort to compel the Northeastern states to work together to reduce smog.

The commission by majority vote can force individual states to adopt smog-control rules if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agrees that those rules are necessary.

In the case of the California rules, EPA agreement is likely because the federal Clean Air Act mandates deep reductions in smog, and cars are the largest source of that pollution.

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