Can West Coast-style cars clear East Coast's smog?


Can Baltimore's unhealthy air be cleared by California cars?

Or will the West Coast import send auto and gas prices soaring, putting thousands of Marylanders out of work?

The Schaefer administration and environmentalists are locked in high-stakes lobbying war with the oil and auto industries over whether Maryland should join California in setting stringent limits on automobile tailpipe emissions.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer's top environmental priority this legislative session is a bill that would require all cars and light trucks sold in the state three years from now to meet California rules, which are stricter than federal standards.

Advocates say the "California car bill" could help solve the state's stubborn air pollution problems, but auto and oil interests say the state would pay dearly and the air would be no cleaner.

The debate is raging up and down the East Coast, where 12 states from Virginia to Maine have pledged to go beyond the federal Clean Air Act to clear up the smog that blankets the Northeast each summer.

On Friday, Massachusetts became the first to adopt the California standards. New York also has proposed rules, and Virginia's General Assembly held a hearing last week on a bill requiring low-emission cars in the state's Washington suburbs.

The lobbying here is dominated more by bar charts and technical jargon than the usual schmoozing over dinner in Annapolis restaurants. But the rhetoric is emotional and bitter, with each side accusing the other of fudging the facts, scaremongering and outright lying.

Auto and oil industry experts are flying into Maryland from Detroit and Chicago. Gas stations around the state are handing their customers fliers urging them to call or write legislators.

"I've been hearing all sorts of things," said Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., D-Baltimore County. "People are grabbing me, telling me gas will cost $2 a gallon, that if you take your car out of state they won't have the proper gasoline."

"It's been built into a frenzy," complained Maryland's environment secretary, Robert Perciasepe. Opponents have made it sound like "there'll be nobody left employed in the state of Maryland," he said.

Industry spokesmen counter that state officials are equally guilty of exaggeration. "Some of their numbers are racing away too," said Michael McDonald, director of the Maryland Petroleum Council.

At issue is whether Maryland needs to do more than required by federal law to rid the Baltimore and Washington areas of their summertime smog.

Ozone, the chief ingredient in smog, is created when hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere react chemically in sunlight. Most man-made hydrocarbons and a third of the nitrogen oxides in the air come from motor vehicles.

Although ozone in the upper atmosphere shields people from ultraviolet rays, at ground level it irritates the lungs and can cause coughing, wheezing, flu-like symptoms and even chest pain. It also can damage crops, forests and man-made materials.

Four million Marylanders breathe harmful levels of ozone in the summertime, according to Mr. Perciasepe.

The Baltimore area, where ozone levels exceeded federal standards on 15 days last summer, has the sixth-worst smog of any city in the country. The Washington area, which had four bad ozone days last year, had the 10th-dirtiest air.

State officials feel that Maryland must switch to California cars to have any hope of complying with the federal Clean Air Act. But opponents say existing federal pollution controls are enough.

And some maintain that nothing shy of banning all cars and trucks will have an impact because so much of the state's smog-forming pollutants come from trees.

Federal law, strengthened by Congress two years ago, requires the state to eliminate unhealthful levels of ozone in the Baltimore area by 2005. It calls for a 42 percent reduction in hydrocarbon emissions, but some studies say an 80 percent reduction may be necessary to wipe out smog.

Hydrocarbons do occur naturally, given off by trees and plants. While estimates vary, scientists say natural sources may account for 25 percent to 50 percent of the hydrocarbons in the Northeast.

But state officials say people, not trees, are responsible for the pollutants that cause unhealthful smog levels.

The Clean Air Act already requires lower tailpipe emissions nationwide, but the tighter California standards would remove another 4.4 tons of hydrocarbons daily from Baltimore's air by 2005, state officials say.

While that's a small part of the 149 tons coming daily from motor vehicles now, proponents say the benefits would increase as new cars and trucks replaced those on the road now.

They say that by 2020, the area's auto-generated hydrocarbon emissions would drop 17 percent under the California standards, compared with only a 9 percent reduction under federal requirements. They say nitrogen oxide emissions would be cut in half.

Auto and oil industry officials dispute the state's figures. They say the Clean Air Act gives the Environmental Protection Agency the power to require a second round of tailpipe reductions by 2003. The so-called "second tier" would come close to California standards.

Opponents of the bill say Maryland would stand to gain a benefit of only 1 percent or 2 percent by switching to California standards now.

"We think it's inappropriate and rushing to judgment when the benefit is so small -- if there's any benefit," said Alan R. Weverstad, manager of exhaust emission compliance for General Motors Corp.

But supporters of the California car bill say it's doubtful whether EPA will order the second round of tailpipe limits, given auto industry lobbying.

The other issue is the cost.

California cars will look and drive just like autos and light trucks on the road today, state officials say. They're likely to have new catalytic converters that can be electrically heated before the engine is started. (Many smog-forming pollutants are spewed from the tailpipe immediately after ignition, before the converter has a chance to warm up.)

GM officials, who are lobbying against the bill here, warn that fitting cars and trucks to comply with California's emission standards could cost up to $1,000 per vehicle.

While state officials put the cost at only $170, GM officials claim the state's figure fails to take into account the cost of a new battery and wiring.

The oil industry also has weighed in against the bill. It says that wherever California cars are required, California fuel won't be far behind.

California officials have proposed a fuel formula that will burn even more cleanly than the "reformulated" gasoline the federal government has ordered nationwide by 1995.

Oil officials say California fuel could boost pump prices by as much as 24 cents per gallon in Maryland. They commissioned a study warning that Maryland would lose 26,400 jobs and $180 million in tax revenues if that came to pass.

But Maryland officials say they have no plans to do that; in fact, the governor's bill specifically rules it out.

"We're not going to use California fuel. I've told the oil industry a hundred times," said Mr. Perciasepe.

The oil industry's fear has infected the state's service station dealers.

"The dealers in this state are hurting right now," said Roy Littlefield, director of the 1,500-member Maryland Service Station and Auto Repair Association. Gas stations and repair shops are already faced with new environmental regulations, he said, and the oil industry's warnings have impressed them.

Auto dealers also worry about their sales if Maryland were to require cleaner, more expensive cars, but not neighboring states.

"This would devastate our business," said Steve Smythe, co-owner of EuroMotorcars in Rockville, who estimated that 40 percent of his customers come from Virginia or the District of Columbia. "We're scared to death of it."

The administration bill would delay emission standards for a year if neighboring states did not take similar action. But auto dealers say they'll drop their opposition only if Maryland's action is dependent on all adjoining states having the same requirements.

The Schaefer administration may be willing to compromise on the timing of the new standards or on how closely they're tied to other states, Mr. Perciasepe said.

He warned that if the General Assembly refuses to give him authority to require cleaner cars, he'll have to squeeze other sources of smog that much harder, including even tighter regulation of industry and measures to limit driving in the Baltimore metropolitan area.

"I just don't think Marylanders want to stop driving their cars," Mr. Perciasepe said.

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