WASHINGTON -- The contentious effort to require ultra-clean and even electric cars in Maryland and other smoggy East Coast states received a boost yesterday.
A multistate commission asked the federal government to require California-style emission controls on all new cars and light trucks sold from Maine to Northern Virginia by fall 1998.
Over objections from four states, officials from Maryland and eight other states on the Ozone Transport Commission voted to petition the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to replace federal motor vehicle pollution standards with California's more stringent limits.
The commission, set up by Congress to combat East Coast smog, represents environmental regulators for Maryland and 11 other Eastern states, plus the District of Columbia.
The commission's vote was a setback for the auto and oil industries, which have lobbied hard to defeat or delay any move to require so-called California cars on the East Coast.
Under the federal Clean Air Act, the EPA must respond to the commission's request within nine months.
The agency must decide if such pollution control measures are needed, then must either grant the request or propose other measures that would achieve similar results.
Mary Nichols, assistant EPA administrator for air and radiation, pledged yesterday to launch an "open and collaborative" review of the states' request.
With EPA involved, it becomes more likely that low-emissions and electric cars will be sold in Maryland beginning with the 1999 model year. The General Assembly last year tied adoption of California's clean-car program to similar action by neighboring states.
Yesterday's decision was quarrelsome. Officials from Delaware, New Jersey, New Hampshire and Virginia appealed to the commission to delay action. They cited several recent studies that criticize the costs and effectiveness of California's vehicle emissions program.
The research raises "critical questions that should be answered" before low-emission cars and light trucks are required, said Robert G. Shinn Jr., New Jersey's new environmental protection commissioner. He asked the commission to take another year for further study. But other officials pressed for action now, noting that states must give the EPA plans for eliminating smog by Nov. 15.
Motor vehicles are the biggest source of smog, the officials said; if states cannot count on tougher auto pollution standards, then they must crack down even harder than already planned on industry and power plants.
Hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides released by motor vehicles, industry and other sources combine in hot summer sun to form ozone in the air, which is better known as smog.
David A. C. Carroll, Maryland's environment secretary, said the commission's action "could provide the public with affordable, air friendly automobiles for the Northeast" and perhaps for the rest of the country.
Ozone can worsen breathing problems for many people. Baltimore and its suburbs have the sixth worst ozone among the nation's urban areas. Other cities in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic areas also have unhealthful air.
Federal law requires clean air in those cities as early as 1999 in some cases, such as Washington, D.C., and by 2005 in Baltimore.
The commission's action does leave the door open for compromise with the auto industry.
The automakers offered last month to build somewhat cleaner cars than federal law now requires, beginning in 2001. But that proposal falls short, commission officials say, because it would not require adoption of new clean-car technology, especially electrically powered vehicles. Under the California program, 2 percent of the cars and light trucks sold by 1998 must be "zero emission" or electric vehicles.
Besides Maryland, others voting to make California emissions standards mandatory in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic were Connecticut, District of Columbia, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont.
State officials said they hope that, through negotiations with EPA and auto executives, that they can "enhance" the auto industry's offer to build somewhat cleaner cars.
William Winters, spokesman for the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, said the commission's action remains clouded by questions about the legality of requiring cars built for California to be sold in other states.
But some environmentalists hailed yesterday's action, and urged EPA not to yield to industry lobbying.