California Dreaming

February 05, 1994

Let's begin with some givens. Cleaner air is a benefit to society. The auto is a major source of pollutants. Because dirty air does not stop at state borders, clean-up efforts must necessarily involve interstate cooperation.

Based on those premises, the 12-state Ozone Transport Commission voted last week to ask the federal government to require tighter, expensive California-type exhaust controls on new cars sold in the Northeast after 1998.

This 8-4 decision, however, is the wrong one for Maryland drivers and for the Maryland economy. It is based on limited local study and much rhetoric, the hope for a simple, magic bullet against a complicated environmental devil, and the belief that California's unique situation can be an easy, cheap test for the much different East Coast.

If the Environmental Protection Agency approves the OTC's request, a new car in Maryland could cost $700 to $1,000 more than a similar model sold in southern Virginia, West Virginia or other parts of the nation.

According to a study of the plan's economic effects by DRI/McGraw-Hill analysts, the Northeast region would sustain a net loss of between $6.8 billion and $15 billion in wages and salaries, and a regional revenue loss of as much as $2 billion.

That's an excessive price to pay for a marginal improvement in air quality. OTC experts argue that the higher price per car might be only $130. If that's true, let's add tighter controls on every car sold in the U.S. and equalize the burden.

After all, the California-car mandate for the Northeast is in addition to stricter controls for all U.S. cars. In 1996, emissions will be 40 percent lower than in 1990 models. Other EPA rules will cut smog through cleaner-burning fuel, gas-vapor recovery systems and tougher auto inspections.

California's unusual mix of climate, topography and auto-intensive society has required special pollution solutions for years. Simply plopping them down in the Northeast is highly questionable science. Further, the Northeast plan eliminates the lower-sulfur fuel required in California for such vehicles, which will limit its success here.

The California car is no panacea for Maryland's dirty air. Other vehicle/fuel programs will be needed to avoid deadly curbs on local industry and economic growth.

Maryland's legislators last year approved a California-car plan, with the proviso that our neighboring states do the same. Significantly, Delaware and Virginia voted against the OTC plan; Pennsylvania is the only neighboring state in favor.

EPA should require emissions improvements in all autos sold in the U.S., not just in the Northeast, lowering the potential cost for all consumers. Let the Northeast states work harder on other solutions to dirty air, including mass transit, that will be less costly to this region's fragile economy.

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