Facing an uphill struggle to get "California cars" in Maryland despite a new state law, the Schaefer administration is seeking a federal ruling that would require sale of the low-emission autos and light trucks in every state from Maine to Virginia.
The administration last month joined officials from Massachusetts and Maine in asking a regional pollution-control commission to consider action that would, in effect, force all 12 states and the District of Columbia to adopt California's stringent auto emission limits.
Even if the Ozone Transport Commission agreed, however, it would likely be several years before area motorists were required to buy the more expensive "California cars."
The commission, made up of representatives of the governors of the 12 states and Washington's mayor, was created by Congress in 1990 to coordinate smog-control efforts in the Boston-to-Washington corridor.
The panel has the authority to petition the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to require that California-style low-emission vehicles be sold throughout the corridor. The federal agency would have to impose the rule unless it determined that smog was no longer a problem in the region -- which no one considers likely.
If a majority of the commission does agree to request federal action, the move would give states a way to avoid the intense resistance from auto and oil industry lobbyists that has prompted some state legislatures to balk at requiring California cars.
So far, only Maryland and four other states in the region have moved to require the sale of vehicles that meet California's tough emission limits.
Commission members representing all 12 states and the District of Columbia agreed to the measure more than a year ago, but political and legal opposition from the auto and oil industries has delayed or discouraged some states from acting. Auto manufacturers have filed suit to block state actions in Maine, Massachusetts and New York. New Jersey adopted the program, but with several conditions.
And in Maryland, the legislature this year gave the Schaefer administration authority to require California cars by 1997 at the earliest but attached so many strings at the be hest of industry opponents that environmentalists doubted the law would ever take effect.
Maryland legislators made the state's action contingent on at least two neighboring states adopting the same requirement. So far, none has.
A Pennsylvania legislative study committee recently voted not to pursue California cars, and Virginia's General Assembly has twice rejected the program. Neither Delaware nor the District of Columbia has taken action.
"Individual states are bogging down and having setbacks," said Glen Besa, a spokesman for the Maryland chapter of the American Lung Association, which supports federal intervention. "The auto industry has been very aggressive in opposing this."
Auto and oil industry officials contend that California-style low-emission vehicles will do little to reduce smog in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, while adding up to $1,000 to the cost of a new car or truck. But several states' studies have put the cost far lower, at about $200 per vehicle, and have predicted that the less-polluting cars will help the region's air quality.
Donald Schroeder, associate director of the Maryland Petroleum Council, which represents the oil industry, charged that the Schaefer administration was trying to circumvent the legislature in asking the federal government to require California cars in Maryland and neighboring states.
But at a hearing on the issue in Washington yesterday, Maryland Environment Secretary David A. C. Carroll said the effort "makes sense from health, environmental and economic standpoints."
The commission is not expected to decide until sometime next year whether to petition the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to impose the program. The EPA then would have another nine months to respond.
Any new program would likely give states and vehicle manufacturers additional time to comply.
Maryland officials want to require sale of California cars to help reduce ground-level ozone pollution, otherwise known as smog, in the Baltimore and Washington areas. Baltimore has the sixth worst ozone problem of all the nation's urban areas.
There have been 16 days so far this summer when ozone reached unhealthful levels in Baltimore and its suburbs.
Ozone causes breathing problems for children and adults playing or working outdoors, and it can aggravate asthma, allergies and other chronic breathing problems. Motor vehicles are the biggest source of hydrocarbon and nitrogen oxide emissions, which combine in the hot summer sun to form ozone.