WASHINGTON -- In the name of fighting smog, residents of Maryland and 11 other East Coast states could be required in four years to buy cars 70 percent cleaner than today's new autos, under a controversial plan approved yesterday by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA's decision comes 10 months after Maryland and other states clashed with auto manufacturers and asked the federal government to require sales of less polluting cars and light trucks, including some powered by natural gas and electric batteries, throughout the Northeast and Middle Atlantic regions.
The agency's ruling was a setback for the auto industry, which had waged a media blitz in recent weeks portraying the states' effort as costly and unnecessary.
But EPA Administrator Carol Browner left the door open for reaching a broader deal with auto manufacturers, who have offered to produce cleaner vehicles nationwide as long as they are freed from having to sell alternative-fueled cars.
Ms. Browner, saying the industry's plan was "more sensible and cost-effective," vowed to continue talks with car manufacturers and state regulators. EPA officials said the agency would not make its ruling effective for at least 30 days, and any agreement reached with the industry could supplant yesterday's ruling.
The federal action was hailed as "a step toward getting cleaner air in our region" by Timothy R. E. Keeney, Connecticut's environmental protection commissioner and chairman of the Ozone Transport Commission, which represents states from Maine to Virginia and the District of Columbia.
Environmentalists, who had threatened to sue if the agency delayed any longer, also welcomed the decision. Paul Billings, spokesman for the American Lung Association, called it a "big victory" for those who suffer from air pollution in the East.
Automakers were disappointed, but Jason Vines, spokesman for the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, said the industry would hold off challenging the EPA's action in court in hopes of reaching agreement with the states.
With four states dissenting, the Ozone Transport Commission voted in February to ask the EPA to mandate sales of low-emission vehicles throughout the Northeast and Middle Atlantic regions beginning in 1998. The commission, set up by Congress to combat smog in the East, modeled its plan on auto pollution standards set in California, which are tougher than federal law requires.
Ozone, the chief ingredient in smog, causes lung inflammation and breathing difficulties for many during summer. Motor vehicles are the single largest source of smog-forming pollutants, according to government studies.
Congress changed the federal Clean Air Act in 1990 to give states deadlines for cleaning up unhealthful levels of ozone, and ordered the EPA to withhold millions in federal highway dollars or restrict new development in states that do not comply.
Two states, New York and Massachusetts, already have adopted California's standards, including a requirement that one in 50 cars sold by 1998 be powered by batteries. Other states have shied away from such sales mandates, opting instead to leave it up to manufacturers to decide how to meet the stringent emission limits.
But automakers contend they cannot meet California's increasingly stringent limits without developing new pollution controls for cars and without ultimately producing electric vehicles.
And they contend that battery-powered cars and trucks would be too costly and have too limited a driving range to appeal to the average buyer.
With encouragement from the EPA, the auto industry has been trying for months to get Eastern states to drop their push for a federally mandated low-emission vehicle infavor of the industry's "49-state" alternative. To avoid having to produce alternative-fueled vehicles for the East Cost, the industry is proposing a car that would be sold everywhere except California.
The EPA has said the industry's proposal could reduce auto emissions at least as much as the states' plan.
Cars built to meet the states' requirements would cost $800 to $2,800 more than today, the industry says, while the cleaner car it proposes would cost $576 more. Both plans would yield gasoline-powered cars that are "almost 99 percent clean," according to the industry.
But state officials have balked, questioning the EPA's pollution claims and contending that the costs of building California-style cars would be far lower than industry projections.
State officials insist that ultra-clean cars be developed as a "safety net" should smog not be cleaned up sufficiently over the next decade.
"We can't just cross our fingers, hope the 49-state car is enough, and walk away," said David A. C. Carroll, Maryland's environment secretary, who noted that state motorists now drive 113 million miles a day.