New strategy for smog control

October 18, 1994

Smog is still polluting our air, harming our lungs and environment, despite nearly a quarter-century of tighter regulations and the expenditure of some $400 billion on controls. Baltimore had 11 unhealthful smog days this summer.

One reason is that regulators have largely ignored a key component of smog that comes out of smokestacks and auto tailpipes: Nitrogen oxides.

Instead, the air quality battle has focused on cutting emissions of another pollutant -- hydrocarbons, found in paint and unburned gasoline -- because those efforts are easier and cheaper. Both hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides form smog through reaction with sunlight. But the assault on hydrocarbon exhausts alone has not achieved clean air goals.

Now the Clean Air Act is finally forcing Maryland and other states with dirty air to slash emissions of nitrogen oxides by the turn of the century. The 12 northeastern states in the Ozone Transport Commission have planned a strategy to cut these pollutants from power plants and industrial boilers by at least 60 percent. The proposal will cost Maryland public utilities, which means consumers, an estimated $136 million for improved filter systems and cleaner fossil fuels. Maryland factories and businesses will also pay a higher price.

But even this new plan likely won't achieve the cutbacks in nitrogen oxides that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says are needed. And the plan will be in place only during the warmer months, when smog is most threatening.

At the same time, two government smog-control strategies for ++ this region may actually increase nitrogen oxides because they focus on hydrocarbon cuts alone. They are the requirement of a more costly oxygen-rich gasoline, with ethanol or methanol additives, for high smog areas such as metro Baltimore and the OTC's plan to mandate the sale of expensive electric cars in this region by 1998.

Oxygenated fuels, which cost 4 cents a gallon more, actually increase nitrogen oxide emissions from autos. And government studies show that use of electric cars may increase nitrogen oxide emissions because of the extra power plant production needed to recharge their batteries.

Cracking down on nitrogen oxides, while revising costly requirements for oxygenated fuel and electric cars, appears to be the most effective current strategy in the ongoing war on smog.

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