Cleaner SUVs, Smokestacks

EPA finally acts to cut smog from big polluters

When George W. Bush recently had to scurry to defend his record on fighting air pollution in Texas, the exchange made a larger point: The consensus on clean air crosses political lines. Americans, generally, agree that the battle against dirty air has yet to be won.

The latest thrust came Dec. 21, when the Environmental Protection Agency issued new rules for vehicle emissions. For the first time the agency outlined a plan to hold highly popular sports utility vehicles and minivans to the same standard as cars.

Such steps are never taken without resistance. The government estimates the new rules eventually will add a few hundred dollars to the price of a new vehicle. The car industry claims forecast is low. But what's the price, in mounting pollution, of not going forward with such rules?

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The proliferating SUVs burn more fuel than cars do and thus belch three to five times more pollutants. For years, they've been held to the looser emissions standard used for trucks. Logic dictated a change. The switchover, however, will be gradual, with the heaviest SUVs not subject to the new standards until 2009.

But economic reality may help curb the SUV pollution problem long before that, as rising gasoline prices nudge many consumers toward more-efficient transportation.

The EPA is moving on other clean-air fronts too. On Dec. 17, the agency ordered nearly 400 power plants in the Midwest and Southeast to cut their smog-causing emissions in half. This was in response to petitions from four Northeast states, which complained their smog-fighting efforts were impeded by smokestacks beyond their control.

The affected utilities assert they're already trying to reduce the nitrogen oxides leaving their stacks. Some appear ready to take the matter to court.

That, too, is a familiar feature of the nation's quest for clean air. Last May, a federal appeals court struck down EPA regulations designed to greatly reduce emissions of ozone and particulate matter, other contributors to smog. The court held that Congress had delegated too much authority to the regulators.

Such controversy underscores the need for sustained political will if the nation is to keep progressing toward the goal of clean air for all - including the world. Clean air, after all, is an issue that blurs national boundaries no less than state lines. The world looks to the US for leadership.

The Clinton administration has compiled a strong record on clean air. Those competing to occupy the White House next should, indeed, be grilled about their readiness to sustain the effort.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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