WASHINGTON -- President Clinton will propose stringent new environmental regulations today to create cleaner-burning gasoline and force auto companies to make their popular sport utility vehicles comply with the same pollution standards that apply to cars.
The Environmental Protection Agency proposals -- which Clinton will unveil in his weekly radio address this morning -- would lower the amount of sulfur in gasoline, thus reducing emissions from all vehicles and preventing sulfur particles from destroying pollution-control technologies such as a new generation of catalytic converters.
They would also sharply lower emissions from some sport utility vehicles and minivans, which are now regulated as work vehicles under much more lax environmental controls. Such vehicles now make up more than half the new passenger cars and trucks sold, and are threatening to overwhelm cities already struggling to comply with air quality standards.
"The administration and the EPA deserve a round of applause," said Ann Mesnikoff, director of the Sierra Club's Clean Car Campaign. "They're tackling two huge pollution problems."
As theirpresence has grown on the nation's roads and highways, sport utility vehicles have become lightning rods for criticism, not just from environmentalists but also from passenger car drivers who are beginning to feel outgunned by what some have called "urban assault vehicles," for their ability to wreak disproportionate damage in a collision.
Their owners sing the praises of their size, style and convenience, and automakers have responded with more and more models.
A recent EPA study found that the emissions from more than 65 million sport utility vehicles -- classified by regulators as light trucks -- match those from the 125 million cars now on the road. Under existing regulations, light trucks are allowed to spew 75 percent to 175 percent more smog-causing emissions than even the biggest luxury car.
It is that inequity that the White House is seeking to address. But the administration's solutions will not be implemented anytime soon, since the standards include a loophole large enough to drive a four-wheel-drive Chevrolet Suburban through.
Automakers will not have to begin complying with the regulations until 2004, when 25 percent of new vehicles would have to meet the cleaner standards. All vehicles weighing up to 6,000 pounds would have to meet the standards by 2007. But large sport utility vehicles such as the Ford Expedition and the Chevrolet Tahoe would be given a reprieve until 2009.
Moreover, the largest sport utility vehicles, such as four-wheel-drive Suburbans and the coming Ford Excursion, would be exempt altogether. Such vehicles, weighing more than 8,500 pounds, are considered heavy trucks and are not subject to regulations that were first authorized by Congress long before anyone believed such giants would be commonly used as passenger cars.
"In effect, they're creating a loophole for the worst, dirtiest cars," said Mesnikoff, who worries that automakers will be tempted to build more vehicles that exceed the regulations' weight threshold.
Still, environmentalists say, the regulations would lower emissions from cars and most minivans by as much as 86 percent and from sport utility vehicles and light trucks by up to 95 percent, once they are fully implemented. The 3 million tons of pollutants spared from the air would be equal to pulling 166 million cars off the roads.
And their implementation is crucial, proponents say. Since the 1970s, automakers and truck buyers have curried favor from Congress and presidents, from tax breaks to regulatory loopholes. Until recently, however, the social impact of such favoritism has been insignificant.
In the mid-1970s, when many environmental standards were first proposed, there were only about 20 million light trucks in use. That total has more than tripled, and continues to grow.
But regulating the problem will come at a cost -- at the gasoline pump and the automobile showroom.
After a 60-day comment period, the EPA will move to complete the proposals, which administration officials hope to institute by the end of the year. Because the regulations stem from the 1990 Clean Air Act, they do not need the approval of Congress, though conservative lawmakers and industry lobbyists are likely to try to thwart their implementation.
"By reducing the pollution that spews from the tailpipes of cars and SUVs, the Clinton administration is making America a healthier place for children to grow up," said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, which has been pushing hard for sport utility vehicle regulation.
Oil industry lobbyists and some automakers were far less supportive. The sulfur regulations and emissions standards actually mirror restrictions already adopted by California, but oil executives said yesterday that it would be unfair and costly to apply the same standards drafted for the nation's dirty coastlines to states that have no clear air problems.