Zero-Pollution Zealotry

California's decision to stick with its rule regarding zero-pollution cars is either heroic or quixotic, depending on one's point of view.

For years, the state has said it wants 10 percent of the cars sold there to be virtually pollutionless by 2003. Yes, it has wavered a bit, loosening earlier percentage goals for '96 and '98 and allowing "near zero" as well as "zero" pollution.

The latter step allowed the state to embrace not only electric vehicles, but hybrid gasoline-electric cars, emerging fuel-cell systems, and even super-clean-burning gasoline engines.

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But last week the California Air Resources Board eschewed further compromise and voted to retain the 10 percent goal.

That vote has implications as far away as New York, Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont, which have adopted California's stringent antipollution regimen, including the mandate for zero-pollution cars.

Underlying California's zealotry is its long, dreary history with smog. Most of the state's nonhighway sources of that gaseous veil have been addressed. And, true, cars are much cleaner than they used to be. But there are more of them than ever. They're still big smog contributors.

The state pollution cops want to go after them, no matter how loudly the automobile industry objects. From an environmental perspective, that stance is heroic.

But there may be some windmill tilting here too. Electric cars are the only pollutionless vehicles currently available in any numbers, though the hybrids are coming on. To reach the 10 percent goal in three years, it's estimated that the 2,300 electric cars now on California roads would have to increase tenfold. But car companies and dealers are convinced there's no market for these cars, given the relatively short distances they'll go before batteries need recharging. Besides that, electric cars currently cost thousands of dollars more than comparable gasoline models.

The price factor, particularly, perturbs the Air Resources Board. It has asked its staff to propose solutions at a meeting next January. Industry representatives hope the board will shift into reverse then. More likely, it will consider using public money to subsidize electric-car purchases.

Clearly, there's a disconnection here between market forces and a social goal. The goal - purer air - is worthy. The state hopes its stand will reshape the market and force carmakers to come up with more and better low-pollution options.

If any state has that kind of clout, it's California. The zero-pollution policy may have one foot (or two tires) in the realm of ideals, but if it gets us a little closer to smogless skies - and a less slavish reliance on oil - that's all right.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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