With seven Eastern states adopting California's strict vehicle-pollution standards in recent years, some Maryland legislators are pushing to impose the same rules here to help solve chronic ozone and asthma problems.
"We have significant air pollution in Maryland and a dramatic increase in asthma, particularly among our children. And passing these limits is one thing we can do about this problem," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat who plans to sponsor a bill in the General Assembly.
The California Low Emission Vehicle requirements are supported by several Maryland environmental groups, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and opposed by automakers and dealers, including General Motors and Ford, which are concerned that higher prices might drive away customers.
The rules, which would boost the cost of a new vehicle sold in Maryland by at least $100, would cut air pollution in the state by 4 percent to 25 percent by 2020, depending on the type of pollutant and on who is conducting the analysis.
Automakers would be required to use financial incentives to ensure that at least 10 percent of vehicles sold in Maryland were low-emission models such as gasoline-electric hybrids. The companies would be subject to steep fines if they failed to reach that goal.
As an alternative, the automakers could show that about a third of their sales consisted of conventional vehicles with extra-tight engine seals and hoses to help prevent pollutants from escaping.
People interested in buying hybrid cars in Maryland today often must contend with waiting lists several months long. Forcing manufacturers to deliver more such vehicles locally would meet demand and help clean up the air, said Brad Heavner, director of Maryland Public Interest Research Group.
"We are not creating new standards here. These standards already exist in eight other states that make up about 26 percent of the U.S. car market," Heavner said. "Adding Maryland to the list would just bump it up to 28 percent. The car companies are already used to complying with these standards."
A proposal to adopt the low-emission vehicle standards died in the House of Delegates last year after the state argued that the regulations would anger General Motors and possibly lead the company to close its factory in Baltimore. The company has since announced that it will shut the Broening Highway plant, eliminating 1,100 jobs.
Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who is chairwoman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, said the closing of the plant might give the bill a better chance this year.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat, suggested that opposition from auto dealers is still an obstacle. "The bill will have a better chance this year because Maryland is a very environmentally friendly state," he said. "But there were some compelling arguments against it that the committee heard last year. And I don't know if the votes will be there to make it out of committee."
Leading opposition to the bill will be Peter Kitzmiller, president of the Maryland New Car and Truck Dealers Association. He predicted that the cost of the tighter environmental controls would be much more than $100 per vehicle and said customers from other states without such regulations - including Virginia and Delaware - will stop shopping for cars in Maryland.
"It's going to create havoc in this state," Kitzmiller said. "I don't know of one dealer who is more than 45 minutes from another state's border, and there are going to be all kinds of problems if we pass this and the other states do not."
Maryland residents would be prohibited from registering vehicles bought in states that don't impose the standards. New Jersey, Connecticut and Rhode Island adopted the tighter rules last year, following New York, Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine. California approved them more than a decade ago.
Officials with auto dealers associations in California, Massachusetts and Connecticut say they haven't noticed a drop-off in sales because of the tighter emission standards. But some said the New England states are unlikely to face problems with cross-state sales because the entire region, except for New Hampshire, has approved the regulations.
"The Massachusetts dealers have not been adversely affected by this in terms of what they are able to sell," said Lee Goodwin of the Massachusetts Automobile Dealers Association.
Maryland health department researchers have reported that air pollution aggravates a growing asthma problem in the state, which recorded 32,000 emergency room visits for asthma in 2003, along with 8,000 hospitalizations and 88 deaths. Baltimore and several counties fail to meet federal air-quality standards for ozone and soot pollution.
A report prepared by an environmental consulting firm for eight Northeastern states in October 2003 concluded that adopting the California standards would reduce toxic emissions from vehicles by 25 percent by 2020.
But an analysis in February by the Maryland Department of the Environment predicted more modest reductions, including a 4 percent cut in nitrogen pollution by 2020. The analysis also predicted an added cost of at least $68 per car and $276 per sport utility vehicle or light truck.
"The benefits are small, and they are not delivered in a timely enough fashion," said Thomas C. Snyder, the agency's director of air programs.
Snyder also said the cost per vehicle for the pollution controls could jump an additional $1,000 or more if Maryland followed California in adopting limits on greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, which are believed to contribute to global warming.
Snyder said that if Maryland adopts the California standards, the state might be forced to adopt the expensive greenhouse rules, too. But Gennet Paauwe of the California Air Resources Board, which sets the regulations, said Maryland and other states have a choice of voting separately to adopt or reject the greenhouse gas limits.
State Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, expects to hold hearings on the issue.