BOSTON — BIG change is in the air for United States carmakers and car buyers.
For months, the auto industry and environmentalists have haggled over an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ruling due last Thursday on cleaner, costlier cars of the 21st century. The decision on a low-emission-vehicle plan was to pertain only to the polluted Northeast. But now, amid heated pressure from both sides, proposal upon counterproposal, and hundreds of written public comments, it seems the ruling will be national and delayed by a few weeks.
The plan is especially key to the Northeast because it will bring states in that region into compliance with federal air-quality standards. This will enable the states to continue collecting millions of dollars in federal public-works funds and save thousands of jobs. But it also has wide-ranging implications for the US automobile industry as a whole and electric vehicles, in particular.
Robert Brenner, the EPA's air-policy director, says his agency hopes to come up with a ``49 state'' plan (excluding California), with a backup plan for the Northeast if carmakers renege on the main program.
``A 49-state plan makes sense because a lot of cars [in the Northeast] were bought someplace else,'' he says. ``So even if someone moves to the Northeast with a car from Iowa, it's the same clean car.''
Though details remain incomplete for the 49-state plan, the backup program is spelled out in a petition submitted by the Ozone Transport Commission (OTC), comprised of officials from northeastern states and the District of Columbia.
The OTC petition calls for the ``California Low Emission Vehicle'' program, minus its electric-vehicle mandate, to be extended to the Northeast starting in 1999. The plan lays out progressively stricter emission standards. OTC backers include environmentalists, utilities, and the American Lung Association.
New York and Massachusetts have already adopted the California plan with its electric-vehicle mandate; other OTC states may opt for the mandate. This plan requires that 2 percent of vehicles sold by major carmakers in California in 1998 be electric. By 2003, the percentage increases to 10 and, by 2010, 70.
But the Big Three carmakers, oil companies, and others oppose the electric-vehicle option. On Oct. 27, a judge threw out a Big Three lawsuit against New York for adopting California's plan; litigation in Massachusetts is pending.
Carmakers contend that electric vehicles produced by 1998 would be either too limited in range or too expensive depending on their battery type; but OTC backers, like New York Power Authority President S. David Freeman, call this claim foot-dragging. ``There isn't an urban area in the world that isn't crying out for electric vehicles,'' he says.
The American Automobile Manufacturers Association (AAMA) has also proposed its own plan: from 1997 to 2000, 40 percent of all vehicles for sale in the Northeast would have 97 percent emission-free engines; by 1999, 30 percent would have 99 percent emission-free engines; and by 2001, all new cars nationwide, except in California, would be low-emission.
On Oct. 27, the ozone commission came back with a compromise that stipulates that New York and Massachusetts keep their California programs, implements the AAMA plan for other states, and requires carmakers to offer for sale in the Northeast 70 percent of what is called for in the OTC petition regarding electric and ultra-low-emission vehicles.
Electric car cost
Cost of the vehicles, especially electrics, is highly controversial.
AAMA spokesman Jeff Conley has said electric vehicles could cost up to $20,000 more than regular vehicles. But Paul Billings, a lung association director, argues: ``All the numbers coming from the Big Three on electric cars are ridiculous when small makers, like Solectria [Corporation of Wilmington, Mass.], sell electric vehicles for $17,000 to $30,000.'' A study by California's Sierra Research found the cost hike to all cars to absorb the carmakers' plan would be $576; $806 for the OTC petition program; and $2,823 for the electric-vehicle component.
Automakers accuse OTC backers of trying to force a market for electric and natural gas products. Nor do the car companies want to have to build specific cars for specific states, prompting cross-border sales and other problems, says Michael Stanton, AAMA director/federal liaison.
Some recent developments have bolstered the automakers' case:
* On Sept. 30, the EPA issued an analysis showing that the OTC petition plan, even with the electric-vehicle component, and the carmakers' plan offer equal emissions reductions.
* On Oct. 4, the American Automobile Association released a study of the 10 most polluted US cities, stating that cars and light trucks produce less than one-third of emissions causing severe ozone problems.
* California is considering stepping up its program in the 2005 model year, forcing one-third of new car buyers to choose an electric vehicle, with the remaining cars powered by natural gas or another technology. Any modification to California's plan could complicate the issue for the OTC petition plan, which is tied to the existing California program. Thus, the EPA may decouple its program from California's.