When New Cars Go Electric

Northeast should adopt California's `ZEV' rule

IN the face of a lobbying barrage by automakers and oil companies, California staunchly upheld its rule that zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) must represent 2 percent of the new cars and trucks in showrooms by 1998, and 10 percent by 2003. Now the battle is moving east, as the Environmental Protection Agency holds hearings on the request by 12 Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states and the District of Columbia for tough California-style standards. Whatever the EPA decides, this group of states as a region - home to nearly a fourth of the United States auto market - should follow California's lead (as several states have done on their own).

Consider a few environmental and economic facts. America's 190 million motor vehicles - which log 2.2 trillion miles a year, equal to 12,000 round-trips to the sun - produce not only smog but also carbon dioxide. Relying so heavily on gasoline jacks up trade deficits: The oil-import bill was $60 billion in 1990 and could top $200 billion by 2010. The ZEV is the only vehicle that can begin to help us clean up the air, curb climate change, and reduce trade deficits. All the other alternatives are one-dimensional solutions to a three-dimensional problem.

Even taking power-plant emissions into account, electric cars will be far cleaner than the cleanest gasoline-powered ones, emitting 95 percent less carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons and up to 75 percent less nitrogen oxides - three ingredients of smog. Better yet, while the pollution-control equipment on gas-powered cars deteriorates as they age, emissions associated with electric cars will drop over time as power plants become cleaner.

Automakers and oil companies attack the ZEV mandate from two different angles. Detroit's Big Three argue that consumers will not buy ZEVs because they will cost too much and have too short a range. For their part, the oil companies are pushing reformulated gasoline as a means for reaching clean-air goals. While these arguments contain elements of truth, they miss the point.

The electric vehicle (EV) that today's cottage industry produces is expensive, and understandably so: Any car would cost a bundle if it were built by hand, one at a time. EV producers buy new cars from showrooms, take them apart, and then discard or try to resell brand-new engines, transmissions, exhaust and fuel systems, and radiators - all of which adds thousands of dollars to the EV's cost. If mass-produced, EVs (excluding batteries) would cost about the same as gas-powered cars. As batteries improve and costs come down, EVs will nearly equal gasoline cars in life-cycle costs and in the distance between ``refueling'' stops.

Oil companies are right that reformulated gasoline would produce less air pollution than ordinary gasoline, but air pollution is not the only problem that a switch to EV's would address. US motor vehicles account for about one-fourth of the nation's emissions of carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas.

Emissions from the US fleet will keep growing if more and more cars are driven more and more miles and if new-vehicle fuel efficiency continues to stagnate. The oil companies also ignore the rising US trade deficit, exacerbated by oil imports, half of which go into the nation's gas tanks. With domestic oil production in a free fall, oil imports could reach 75 percent of supply by 2010, and much of the increase will fuel motor vehicles.

Switching to reformulated gasoline won't cut the nation's carbon-dioxide and emissions or its oil-import bills. Switching to electric cars and trucks will. Taking into account the nation's electricity supply, an electric car would emit much less carbon dioxide than a comparable gasoline car - about 30 percent less in the Northeast. And since US electric utilities use very little oil, substituting EVs for gas-powered cars would begin to shrink oil imports.

The farther one looks ahead, the more promising ZEVs look. As photovoltaics and wind turbines and other non-fossil technologies to produce electricity come on line over the next several decades, the air-quality and climate effects of ZEVs would all but vanish. And, of course, the electricity or hydrogen would both be homegrown - good news for trade deficits and defense budgets. The French and Japanese have clearly embraced the overall message: Peugeot and Citroen will begin mass-producing EVs next year, while the Japanese plan to put 200,000 EVs on the road by the year 2000.

These Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states are making decisions now about what the nation's auto fleet will look like in 20 years. States with a ZEV mandate can pioneer vehicles that we can live with in the next century, ones that can rely on sustainable energy sources without jeopardizing public health, national security, or the environment. In this case, what's good for California is good for the rest of us too. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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