THE recent decision by the northeastern environmental commissioners to adopt California's motor vehicle standards is a pivotal development in the nine-year battle in Congress to pass strong Clean Air Act legislation. It sends a forceful message to the president: His proposed Clean Air Act falls far short of providing the tools needed to fight urban smog. The bipartisanship of the northeastern commissioners should also give pause to those in the administration who accuse their clean air critics of playing partisan politics. Pollution is not about politics. Pollution is about public health.
The message from the commissioners should also be heard in Congress. We need to close the loopholes in the administration's bill that in some areas make it look more like a trail of compromises with special interests than a plan which can best protect the health of the American people.
Officials in eight northeastern states, with 35 million people living in areas where air quality flunks the health-based ozone standard, have now told us that we must do more to deal with urban smog than the president has proposed. Their message is timely. Last month some of the top environmental scientists in the United States met in California and concluded that smog can inflict irreversible injury on people in polluted cities.
It is important that New York and New Jersey signed this agreement. Air pollution traveling from those states (as well as from other states which, unfortunately, are not part of this agreement) contributes significantly to New England's severe smog problem.
Why can't the automobile manufacturers produce the same cleaner cars for the northeast as they are required to produce for California?
Cars and trucks produce most of our nation's smog, accounting for approximately 40-50 percent of the ozone pollution, and almost 90 percent of the carbon monoxide problem. Yet instead of tightening standards to at least meet those set by California, the administration wants to make major concessions to the automobile industry and roll back some existing requirements.
Most importantly, the northeastern commissioners have rejected the administration's proposal that all cars no longer be required to meet standards for tailpipe emissions that contribute to smog. In a step backward from the existing Clean Air Act, the president would allow automakers to average the emissions from their entire line of cars. Only the average would have to meet standards. Rather than decrease pollution, the president's proposal would result in standards that could be as much as 28 percent more lenient than current law.
The states also have followed California's lead and will require that tailpipe standards extend to cover the full useful life of a car - 100,000 miles. Despite the fact that many cars remain on the road for that long, that more than half of them exceed the standards even before reaching 30,000 miles, and that emissions from cars after 50,000 miles (the current mandated lifetime of emissions standards) increase significantly, the president's bill fails to extend the standards to the full useful life. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), this is among the most cost-effective solutions to pollution control.
Finally, the states recognize that the president's bill leaves too much discretion with EPA to decide whether or not to implement effective control methods. For example, California requires that all cars be equipped with dashboard indicators that alert the operator of malfunctions in the car. Air pollution from motor vehicles can then be reduced by ensuring that emission control systems are quickly serviced when they are not working. The president's bill leaves it up to the EPA to determine - after considering economic factors - whether this simple system will be required on cars outside of California.
When Congress reconvenes in September the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will be closely examining the president's proposal and preparing its own legislation on smog. The Committee should require that all automobiles meet the standards set by California and the northeastern states. In fact, many cars already meet standards twice as strict as California's.
In recent years, the states have taken the lead in controlling air pollution because of the absence of federal leadership. Once again, they have acted decisively and progressively. In response, the auto manufacturers complained that they will be forced to deal with different emission standards throughout the United States by manufacturing two kinds of cars. Yet their argument rings hollow because they are already producing a less polluting car for California.
But perhaps they have a point. The American people have the right to buy and drive the cleanest car possible, regardless of where they live. That is the standard Congress should set as it continues to work on clean air legislation.