THE ENVIRONMENTAL Protection Agency's approval of a cleaner-emissions auto to be sold nationwide in five years signals a welcome compromise to avoid an embarrassing showdown over unreachable, inflexible Clean Air Act goals.
But it still needs the common-sense agreement of automakers ** and the compact of Northeast states, including Maryland, that ,, plan to adopt the more severe clean car rules drafted by California. Those rules include requiring sales of electric vehicles, which have so far proven costly and technologically impractical in the colder climate of the Northeast.
Undeniably, the Northeast has an air pollution problem. But dirty auto emissions, and the winds that carry them, do not stop at the borders of those 12 states: Ohio and West Virginia, for example, contribute to air pollution in coastal states, but are not in the compact.
Hot, stagnant humid air will sharpen smog's bite in exceptional summers, as we have just experienced. But overall air quality has significantly improved in Maryland and the Northeast. Today's cars are 95 percent cleaner than 1970s models; unhealthy smog days in Maryland now average fewer than one-half the number in the 1980s.
The auto industry proposal for a 49-state "clean car" by 2001 would cut nitrogen oxide emissions by 50 percent and hydrocarbon exhausts by 75 percent from current standards. Those are deep pollution reductions, which will add a couple hundred dollars to a new car's price, but they are achievable. And they will help to clean up the entire nation's air; California's peculiar geography and car culture may continue to require stricter measures.
The problem for Maryland and neighbors is that the cleaner national cars may not be clean enough to meet federally prescribed reductions in air pollution: 15 percent next year, 3 percent in subsequent years. That will force these states to adopt tougher limits on business and industrial air pollution, sacrificing jobs and braking economic growth for an elusive marginal gain in air quality that is too often dependent on vagaries of weather.
Pressure to produce cleaner autos, including natural gas and electric-battery models, must continue. EPA and the states must hold the auto industry to making an effective nationwide clean car by 2001. But Congress should also reconsider the rigid clean air requirements of the 1990 law, and recognize that more realistic flexibility on deadlines and technology is needed.