Driving a `green' car can help environment

On The Bay

Ratings: Before you buy a vehicle, use the Green Book to determine its anti-pollution value based on the nitrogen oxides it exhausts.

March 23, 2001|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

THE NEXT TIME someone asks what one person can do for the bay, tell him or her to buy the Green Book, the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy's guide to environmentally sound cars and trucks.

Just as the Kelley Blue Book is the definitive guide to auto prices, the ACEEE's Green Book, updated annually, gives a comprehensive environmental impact statement for every passenger vehicle sold in America.

It's far more than just a fuel economy guide. It assigns each vehicle an overall green rating based on human health damage from tailpipe pollution. It also rates the vehicle's impact on global warming, air quality and, indirectly, quality of coastal waters such as the Chesapeake.

Degrees of greenness, on a scale of zero to 100, range from nearly 50 for the least polluting cars available nationwide to about 12 for the most polluting SUVs, such as the Lincoln Navigator our otherwise environmentally conscious governor drives.

I was encouraged by the potential to make a positive impact on bay water quality after reading the Green Book's lucid and thorough discussions of cars and pollution.

Your next car or truck may be one of the largest purely personal choices you can make to help the bay.

Passenger vehicles in the Chesapeake's watershed, primarily Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, contribute about 12 million pounds annually of nitrogen, the bay's most troublesome pollutant.

The differences your choices make in tailpipe emissions of nitrogen oxides, the source of this pollution, are documented in the Green Book.

A Ford Expedition SUV, for example, with a green rating of 15, better than average for its class, produces twice as much nitrogen as a Subaru Outback, with a green rating of 28.

The Subaru provides all-wheel drive that will navigate in wintry conditions just as well as the Expedition.

For those who don't need true off-road or large-load hauling capacity -- and most SUV drivers don't -- it's a viable way to halve your vehicular impact on the bay.

Lots of similar alternatives to the most-polluting four-wheel-drives are available now, in station wagon and car models from Mercedes, BMW, Volvo, Volkswagen and Audi.

But what if we could cut nitrogen from vehicles far more than half -- to 10 percent or less of today's typical new vehicles?

You can do it today with the new Toyota Prius, a four-door sedan with about as much room as a Honda Civic. It uses hybrid gasoline-electric motors and gets one of the highest green ratings, 51.

Californians are able this year to buy standard gasoline-powered Honda Accords and Nissan Sentras that meet the same, Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (SULEV) standard as the Prius.

The Nissan, according to the Green Book, produces less air pollution when driven 20 miles a day than typical new cars produce sitting in your driveway.

It does this by controlling the pollution that evaporates from a car's fuel system, even when parked. It also has a radiator coating that cleans polluted air flowing over it.

SULEV technology could take a huge bite out of the bay's nitrogen load in coming years. It is the first tailpipe standard that lowers nitrogen (pollution controls up to now have primarily lowered smog-forming hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide).

I checked to see whether one could get the California SULEV Accords and Sentras here. The autos' makers say you'd have to buy them in California and ship or drive them home.

You'd also have to fuel up around Maryland at Sunoco stations or at some Amoco stations, the only sources here of low-sulfur gasoline. Otherwise the cars' catalytic converters won't reduce pollution as designed.

Federal regulations should start making SULEV and low-sulfur gasoline choices more common by about 2004 (even the currently available Prius needs low-sulfur gas to meet the nitrogen-busting SULEV standard).

But why wait, when we're going to need to reduce nitrogen to the bay by perhaps another 100 million pounds to restore its health?

Maryland and its neighbor bay states ought to consider ways to accelerate the introduction of low-sulfur gasoline and the ultra-low- nitrogen SULEV automobiles as soon as possible.

Meantime, get the Green Book and let it help you choose with an eye to the environment. It rates vehicles by class, and even within the most polluting classes, there are choices substantially greener than others.

Among the largest SUVs and pickups, for example, the ratings range from 10, the worst, to 17, still bad but better.

There are limits to technology as a way to save the bay. As population increases, and we keep driving more -- miles driven per capita are rising three times as fast as population -- such gains are ultimately outstripped.

Clever technology to clean up car exhausts, has let us improve air quality in many cities while going backward on fuel economy.

The average gas mileage of passenger vehicles is actually worse today than at any time since 1980, two miles per gallon less than in 1987.

Order your 2001 Green Book for $8.95 from ACEEE, 1001 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 801, Washington, D.C. 20036; or call 202- 429-0063; or email greenercars@ aceee.org.

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