Down with sport utility vehicles

On The Bay

Exhaust: Pickups, vans and SUVs contribute a hugely disproportionate amount of air pollution to the six-state Chesapeake watershed. Drive a car.

May 07, 1999|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

IT IS ONE OF THE MORE ironic signs of our times -- a four-wheel drive, a pickup or a minivan sporting a bumper sticker that says "Save The Bay" or a license plate proclaiming "Treasure the Chesapeake."

It's a common enough sight, as all have gotten very popular.

The pickups, vans and "sport utility vehicles" like Jeeps, Suburbans and Explorers have burgeoned from 20 million in the 1970s to 65 million nationwide. They account for half of all passenger vehicles sold each year.

Membership in environmental groups such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (slogan, Save The Bay) has risen from a few thousand to about 90,000. More popular still are the Chesapeake Bay license tags.

Among these presumably bay-savvy drivers of SUVs, the apparent disconnect between what they say and what they are doing is large.

In recent years, science has established that a third or more of the pollutants, such as nitrogen, that are killing the Chesapeake Bay come not from sewage or from poultry manure, but from the air.

Close to half the airborne nitrogen generated within the Chesapeake's six-state watershed comes from vehicle exhausts, and pickup, van and SUV drivers are hugely disproportionate contributors.

Under one of the most egregious loopholes in the federal Clean Air Act, automakers are allowed to build "light trucks" to emit three times or more the smog-forming air pollutants, including nitrogen, as cars.

They are allowed to pass off as light trucks not only pickups, but minivans and every stripe of sport utility vehicle, from smallish Toyota RAV-4s, to behemoth Range Rovers, Lincoln Navigators and the recently unveiled, 19-foot, 4-ton Ford Excursion.

It has gotten to the point that the 65 million SUV-type vehicles on our highways are out-polluting the more than 120 million cars.

So, for anyone who asks, "What can I do to help the bay?" here's a suggestion: Consider a car as your next vehicle.

A few people might not have that choice. If you farm, work construction, haul a big pleasure boat or camper or a horse trailer, or routinely travel off-road in all conditions like a professional forester, then anything less might not do.

But I'll bet such people are a tiny percentage of SUV drivers in our region.

Even in snowy, mountainous Garrett County, I know people who do fine with Subaru's all-wheel-drive station wagons, which are classed as cars and pollute less. A Buick or Volvo station wagon can haul as much as a minivan. Once or twice a year, I truly need a minivan -- so I rent one for the weekend.

A less-polluting vehicle helps more than the bay's water quality. It reduces smog and human respiratory problems. The better mileage of most cars produces less carbon dioxide, which reduces the most significant cause of global warming.

The SUV-car decision is one of many areas, from lawn care to recycling and reuse, where one can choose to have a larger or smaller impact on the environment.

I am convinced, given the rapid increase of population around the Chesapeake Bay, that without more individual responsibility for pollution, regulations alone cannot achieve the restoration we all say we want.

A case in point: the government regulations proposed last week by the Environmental Protection Agency to bring SUVs in line with more stringent car emissions.

They were hailed with "a round of applause" by groups such as the Sierra Club, which has done yeoman work to rein in vehicular pollution. Indeed, the new proposals, which will now have public hearings, are a great leap forward.

But they also fall pathetically short of what's needed, and of what's technologically and financially easy to do.

Consider: the Clean Air Act doesn't allow EPA to begin making vehicle makers comply with tougher emissions until 2004, when 25 percent of new SUV-type vehicles have to meet them.

Most of the rest would have until 2007 to comply -- and the bigger, dirtier, thirstier ones weighing more than 3 tons, like the Ford Expedition and Chevrolet Tahoe, would get until 2009.

There's worse. The very biggest SUVs of all, such as the Ford Excursion, weighing more than 8,500 pounds, and any other models of that caliber introduced in coming years, don't have to meet the standards at all -- ever.

Environmentalists note nonetheless that the fully implemented regulations, including additional proposed mandates for lower sulfur gasoline, would remove a whopping 3 million tons of air pollutants.

What they don't note, given the long phase-in, is the extent to which this will be offset by more vehicles on the road, and by ever-increasing miles driven each year by Americans.

This is particularly galling, given the fact that the changes needed to make SUVs meet car standards are relatively low-tech, and estimated by the EPA to cost $100 to $200 a vehicle (this on vehicles where automaker profits run from a few thousand to more than $10,000 each).

You have a clear choice. Wait for government to do it for you, in a half-baked fashion, or do it yourself the next time you trade or buy a vehicle.

Even within the SUV lineups, better and worse choices are available. Ford and Chrysler, stung by bad publicity, are retooling some of their minivans and four-wheel drives to meet car standards.

The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy in Washington publishes an annual "Green Guide to Cars and Trucks," ranking fuel economy and tailpipe emissions. Their Web site is

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