On environment, the MDE is merely going by the book

ON THE BAY

Cars: Real leadership would include attention to low-pollution vehicles.

February 04, 2005|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

You hear a lot about "lack of leadership" as a reason we're still struggling to clean up the Chesapeake Bay - more than 20 years after we began.

A classic example of how this keeps happening will be on exhibit soon, as the legislature tries again to pass a "California car" bill - and Maryland's Department of Environment likely opposes it again.

Maryland auto dealers would have to offer consumers the same wide choice of low-polluting and fuel-efficient vehicles as California, which long ago rejected the Environmental Protection Agency's nationwide standards as too weak to solve its pollution problem.

Such vehicles reduce by as much as 90 percent the polluting nitrogen they dump into the air - and ultimately the bay. They also reduce pollutants that contribute to asthma, premature deaths and smog.

Automakers here would have to use financial incentives to make sure that at least 10 percent of their sales were the clean, high-mileage California types.

That'll cost dealers about $100 per vehicle, say bill supporters - more than that, says the auto industry. Seven East Coast states from Maine to New Jersey have joined California, with no apparent impact on the car business.

But last year the MDE, our major air and water quality agency, testified the gain wasn't worth the cost. While the MDE hasn't taken a formal position yet, it shows every sign of working again to defeat the bill.

So where's the disconnect? Are the enviros on a wild goose chase? Is the MDE in bed with business? The answer is more subtle but nonetheless critical to whether we ever make real environmental progress.

It is the difference between the MDE, and thus the Ehrlich administration, going by the book, getting by, doing its job - or showing real leadership.

Tom Snyder, chief of the MDE's air programs, says that by 2010, going to California standards will make "almost no difference." Even by 2020, the drop in Maryland's total nitrogen pollution might be about 4 percent, he adds (bill proponents say it would be much higher.) The cleaner, higher-mileage cars won't create enough difference in the makeup of the state's car fleet, Snyder says.

Anyhow, he's clearly more focused on other EPA standards relating to soot and smog. Maryland wants to avoid sanctions for not meeting a 2010 legal deadline.

And this is better done by working to control emissions from power plants on a regional level; their pollutants blow into Maryland from as far away as Ohio.

All well and good, but it's basically keeping your head down.

Leadership? In my view, this would be leadership:

The secretary of the MDE shows up at the bill's hearing in the next few weeks and says it has to pass - "because my governor is committed to moving the bay cleanup off the dime.

"Just look at the long list of literally unprecedented actions we will need to reduce nitrogen enough to restore this estuary," the secretary says.

"There is no magic bullet. We cannot ignore even 1 percent of the problem, let alone 4 percent. And we can make this bill yield cleanup gains far beyond 4 percent.

"We will use what we do to lobby Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia - all the states whose pollution drains into the Chesapeake. When you look at the region, you see that a third of all the bay's polluting nitrogen is from the air - and that auto emissions are close to half of that.

"The problem is too big, EPA's standards too weak. We don't have to wait and we won't."

The secretary then introduces the governor, who has arrived in a new state Honda Civic hybrid, which gets 50 miles per gallon and cuts nitrogen by 90 percent over the best conventional cars on the Maryland road. The governor announces he will be driving it in television ads next summer to promote eco-tourism in Maryland.

"I want to talk about President Bush's vision of an `ownership' society," the governor says. "I believe it includes taking ownership of your tailpipe, of all of your lifestyle's impact on our shared natural resources. I drive easier, and you will, too, knowing we're doing all we can to reduce Maryland's 32,000 annual asthma-related hospital visits."

The Gov, shouting now to be heard over the bipartisan ovation, continues: "There is no EPA deadline by which we will have saved the bay. Even as cars get cleaner, we pave more of the forests that filter pollution from the air. Freedom to breathe requires constant vigilance."

He concludes: "This bill is also about consumer choice, about cars that may cost a couple hundred more but cut your gas bill in half."

Looking every inch like a slam dunk for re-election, the governor makes a clean exit in his AT-PZEV (Alternative technology-partial zero emissions vehicle, as California classifies the Civic).

And that would be leadership.

Support the dream. Call or write the California car bill's sponsors, Del. Elizabeth Bobo and Sen. Sharon M. Grosfeld.

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