Politics and Science in the New Clean-Air Rules

January 24, 1995|By J. HUGH ELLIS

Little scientific evidence exists to support the Environmental Protection Agency's recent decision to allow Maryland and 11 other states to adopt the California Low Emission Vehicle Program.

For reasons seemingly more political than scientific, Maryland's Department of Environment, as a member of the Ozone Transport Commission (12 states in the Northeast and Middle Atlantic regions, including Virginia), has lobbied long and hard for the EPA to require it and the other states to adopt the California plan.

It's hard to argue against a plan that will force auto manufacturers to build lower-emission cars as well as to make available, as soon as 1998, some alternative energy vehicles, including electric-powered models. There are, however, problems aplenty.

The technological innovations automobile manufacturers would have to implement to support the program are not yet here, especially for electric cars.

And even if these technologies were in hand, the added cost to consumers would more than offset the impact of the marginal reduction in pollutants that the California plan would achieve.

If we're looking for the most bang for our environmental buck, we certainly don't need to implement an overly expensive, technologically shaky plan. There are more efficient, economically sound alternatives available -- and they, unlike the California plan, have already been mandated in the 1990 Clear Air Act.

Some of the mandatory control provisions in the Clean Air Act are in effect now. Gasoline has been reformulated to be cleaner, emitting far less nitrogen oxide and other ozone-forming substances from tailpipes. Upgraded vapor-recovery and emission-control systems -- not just at the gas pumps, but at other ozone sources like dry cleaners and auto-body finishing shops -- are also reducing emission levels.

And, like it or not (and who will, when we're caught in longer lines at upgraded inspection facilities?), the stricter vehicle-inspection and maintenance programs being implemented in Maryland and other states in 1995 will identify and, one hopes, correct the 10 percent of cars responsible for some 50 percent of mobile-source ozone emissions.

These steps will likely propel smog-filled cities like Baltimore well along the road to attaining compliance with Clean Air Act ozone requirements by the year 2005.

BBut note the equivocation ''likely.'' Doesn't anybody really know? Well, . . . no. And here lies a nasty rub.

The act places an enormous and unprecedented burden upon computer-generated forecasts to demonstrate progress toward ozone attainment. Yet computer modeling, even given an intense effort by many first-rate scientists, does not yet provide reliable forecasts.

So why the ballyhoo for the California plan? The answer lies within the voluminous Clean Air Act itself.

States like Maryland must periodically show to the EPA, via State Implementation Plans, what incremental steps they are taking to reach compliance with the act. In particular, they must show ''reasonable further progress.''

So while the Maryland Department of Environment is working diligently to reach the goal, it must also satisfy the regulatory letter of the law by coming up with approved implementation plans to win credits for making efforts. And the California plan, due to some highly questionable forecasting, has associated with it much-valued credits.

Faced with the difficult task of finding credits elsewhere -- and there aren't many to be found in such ''small-potatoes'' areas as lawn-mower emissions control and barbecue lighter-fluid bans -- California cars look attractive.

Fine, but why did the Environmental Protection Agency agree to the plan? Well, it did and it didn't.

While the December 19 announcement gave the Ozone Transport Commission the opportunity to impose the California standards in their states, it also left some wiggle room for auto manufacturers to tout their own plan. According to Carol Browner, the EPA administrator, the ruling won't derail her agency's negotiations with the American Automobile Manufacturers Association on the possible implementation of its own 49-state car-option plan.

The 49-state plan would result in cars producing lower emissions than today's fleet, although it does not include provisions for electric-powered vehicles. But it has the advantage of being do-able. The California plan isn't.

Cynics -- with good reason -- might say that if you don't set the regulatory bar high enough, automobile manufacturers just will not take the steps to produce cleaner cars. Certainly, the industry's introduction of the catalytic converter after years of saying it was impossible was a good example of car makers crying wolf.

But in this instance, the auto companies seem to be telling the truth. Why else, in such a competitive industry, would all U.S. and major foreign manufacturers agree that the 49-state plan was the best choice? Surely, a car company with the ability to produce an affordable, ultra-clean conventional car or a viable electric car, for example, would eagerly pursue what would be an economic and public-relations gold mine.

What should the Environmental Protection Agency have done with the Ozone Transport Commission's request? It should have rejected it.

J. Hugh Ellis teaches environmental engineering at Johns Hopkins University. He serves on the Maryland Air Quality Control Advisory Council.

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