`Clean car' idea gains momentum

Miller says he'll back bill for stricter Md. standards

January 06, 2007|By Michael Dresser and Andrew A. Green | Michael Dresser and Andrew A. Green,Sun Reporters

CAMBRIDGE -- Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller threw his support yesterday behind legislation to require tougher emissions standards for new cars sold in the state, giving a major boost to a top goal of environmentalists.

Speaking to local elected officials at the Maryland Association of Counties conference, Miller said a bill requiring the California-style emissions standards will be controversial with car dealers but is necessary if the state is serious about protecting the environment.

"That's going to pass," said Miller, a Calvert County Democrat. "It's something that's going to come. If you're going to be serious about the environment, it's something you're going to have to do."

Under the proposal, Maryland would join California and 10 other states in requiring automakers to reduce their fleetwide emissions of such pollutants as carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ozone and benzene.

Environmentalists say they plan to make the clean-car bill one of their top priorities in the coming legislative session, which begins Wednesday.

Cindy Schwartz, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, said she believes the bill has significant momentum this year because of public interest in the issue of global warming, sparked by former Vice President Al Gore's activism and news reports of melting ice caps.

"It's something that's in the forefront of people's minds as a concern, and the tailpipe emissions are something people can see and get their minds around," Schwartz said. "Maryland can be a leader on this."

Miller's support of the bill disappointed Maryland's auto dealer lobby, which had a strong ally in Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. before his election defeat. "I'm not very happy," said Peter Kitzmiller, president of the Maryland Automobile Dealers Association.

Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley, said O'Malley is "not at the point" of adopting the proposal as his own, but is not ruling it out.

"He's very interested in working with legislators on this particular piece of legislation," Abbruzzese said.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch has not taken a public position on the legislation but is generally viewed by environmentalists as sympathetic.

"The vote count in the Senate was viewed as the biggest open question, and it'll be good to have the Senate president on board," said Brad Heavner, president of Environment Maryland.

Heavner said California introduced its standards in 1990. The intent was to use the size of the California market to force automakers to speed their efforts to develop cleaner cars despite the higher cost.

Since then, other states - including New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania - have also adopted those standards. The federal government adopted its own standards in 1999, but environmental advocates regard them as weaker, particularly because they do not address carbon dioxide.

In addition to regulating carbon dioxide emissions, the standards also require that a percentage of cars sold in the state use advanced emissions control technology.

Heavner said that part of the proposal here would encourage the production of more hybrid gas and electric vehicles that save on mileage. The program would also require more of a reduction in emissions of benzene - a human carcinogen - than the federal government does.

A similar proposal came within one vote of passing a state Senate committee two years ago but was not introduced last year. Miller's endorsement is usually close to a guarantee that a bill will pass in his chamber.

Kitzmiller took issue with several of the contentions of the bill's supporters. "Adopting the California standard does absolutely nothing to address any air-quality issues in Maryland," he said.

Kitzmiller said that "California cars" are designed to address air-quality issues peculiar to that state. He also contended that California cars do not produce less pollution unless they are powered by specially formulated gasoline unavailable of the East Coast.

"If you don't have California fuel in there, it's just window-dressing," Kitzmiller said.

In a switch in tactics, the dealers are proposing delay rather than opposing the measure head-on. They are proposing that Maryland set up a commission made up of scientists and lawmakers - not auto dealers, they say - to study the best way to address air-quality issues.

"All we're saying is, `This is complicated, it's not what it's being presented as, let's study it,' " Kitzmiller said.

Jack Fitzgerald, an auto dealer in Maryland for 40 years, said the federal emissions standards adopted by the Environmental Protection Agency under President Bill Clinton in 1999 and now being phased in are producing an increasingly clean fleet of cars nationwide.

"Bill Clinton put the nail in the coffin of the dirty car in 1999," he said. "The federal car has gotten so clean we might get dirtier air with the California car."

But Heavner said the industry's contentions about gasoline and federal standards are flatly wrong. He described the pleas for a study as "a delaying tactic."

"This policy has been studied a lot. A lot of states went through this process," he said.


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