Curbing our cars

December 29, 2006

This fall, Pennsylvania became the 10th state in the nation to adopt California's stricter car emissions standards in order to reduce air pollution and lower the excess carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming. Most Northeastern states have taken similar action, as have Oregon and Washington on the West Coast. With its chronic air pollution problems, Maryland should follow suit.

The need to address Maryland's poor air quality is evident, particularly for the central part of the state. Anne Arundel and Harford, for instance, rank 20th and 21st as most ozone-polluted counties in the nation. Bad air is a health risk for everyone but it's particularly difficult for people with asthma, the elderly, children or those with pulmonary or heart disease.

Certain chemicals found in car exhaust have been linked to cancer, and environmental advocates note that from Western Maryland to the Eastern Shore, the cancer risk posed by air pollution is, on average, about 40 times the national standard. In Baltimore, it's been found to be as much as 62 times higher. Motor vehicles are the primary source of these pollutants.

Car manufacturers and dealers have opposed so-called Clean Car legislation in the past. But the federal Environmental Protection Agency's failure to raise vehicle emissions standards and particularly to address carbon dioxide has given states little choice but to pursue the California mandates. That's tougher on the industry (juggling inventories among the various states, for instance) but it's clearly a price worth paying.

The most controversial aspect of this measure would be to require the sale of cleaner-burning (and higher-gas-mileage) vehicles in the future. That provision faces legal challenges in federal courts. But there's not much sense in waiting for a resolution. Coal-burning power plants were recently required to reduce carbon dioxide and other air pollutants. Requiring the same of motor vehicles is the next logical step.

Instead of fighting against cleaner vehicles, carmakers should be lobbying Washington to raise emissions standards, particularly on greenhouse gases, on a national level. But just as the industry fought against government-mandated air bags and other safety standards before recognizing their value, it appears Detroit has misjudged the need for high-mileage, low-emissions vehicles, too. That's why states, including Maryland, must now intervene.

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