Cleaner air and common sense


With billions of dollars at stake for consumers and the economy, the federal government decides today whether to require consumers in Maryland and 11 other northeastern states to buy electric autos and adopt other California car standards in order to clean up local smog.

It's a strategy that the Environmental Protection Agency should reject, in large part because there is a more sensible, less costly plan that would assure cleaner air for the greater United States.

The alternative was pushed by the auto industry after EPA indicated it would likely approve the flawed California-dictated strategy adopted by the 12 states (including Maryland) that make up the Ozone Transport Commission.

The automakers' plan would require cleaner gasoline vehicles in 49 states and accomplish virtually the same cuts in auto pollution as the imposition of California rules on the northeast. The OTC plan costs more primarily because high-priced unproven electric cars would have to be sold by each automaker, an expense shared by all auto buyers.

An EPA analysis found the two competing plans to be equivalent in cleaning up Northeast air. Electric cars are cleaner than gas-burning vehicles but the overall cleanup impact, including electricity production pollution, would not be much better. Electric cars are still super-expensive and limited in range: a round-trip between Hunt Valley and BWI Airport, for instance, would nearly drain the power capacity of most available battery cars.

Since air pollution knows no boundaries, Midwest power plants are polluting the East Coast, it would seem the wiser course to require the sale of cleaner operating vehicles in all 49 states and improve the entire airscape. (California has gone its own way for two decades.)

The auto industry pledges to phase in these cleaner-running gasoline-powered cars between 1999 and 2001. But EPA could shorten this deadline a year or two. It could also force electric car technology through bigger tax incentives for businesses that could more easily afford, and more effectively use, these short-haul fleet vehicles today. In time, these cars may prove worthy of, and affordable by, the mass consumer market.

Air quality improvements are taking place. Cleaner-burning fuel will be required in this state next year, as will tougher auto inspection programs, to reduce emissions. The number of unhealthy smog days here is in confirmed decline.

We are for cleaner air. We recognize that severely impacted urban centers may have to do more to curb auto use. (Ironically, the highest Baltimore-area readings often occur in Harford and Cecil counties.) But the solution is not to impose on the entire state a solution crafted for California's unique geography and problem, one which will threaten unfair economic hardship without providing commensurate air quality improvements.

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