THE strategy of the United States oil and automotive industries is working. Successful lobbying resulted in the ``fuel-neutral'' clean-air bill that the Senate began debating on Monday. As introduced, the bill gives 14 oil companies and the Big Three automakers, who joined forces last fall, breathing room to find the cheapest combination of car and fuel that meets federal emissions standards. Experiments begin April 2.
The most stringent auto emissions and fuel efficiency targets under consideration were removed, delayed, or made conditional before the bill was brought to the floor. So many compromises were arranged in advance that the legislation is not expected to change much during Senate debate. It will likely be modified during eventual reconciliation with the House's version.
One thing is certain: Reaching national ambient air quality standards in the smoggiest cities is a giant challenge.
Smog - ground-level ozone - corrodes plastic, paint, and rubber. Half comes from cars, which emit hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxide. These chemicals react in sunlight to form ozone.
Air quality in most US cities has improved dramatically since federal clean air laws were enacted in 1973. Hydrocarbon emissions from auto exhaust are down 97 percent.
Yet 88.6 million Americans in 1987 lived in counties that exceeded the national ambient air quality standard for smog, the Environmental Protection Agency says, calling it ``the most pervasive pollutant in urban areas.''
The Senate bill would require that vehicles emit no more than 0.31 grams per mile of hydrocarbons and 0.4 g.p.m. of nitrogen oxides, reductions of about 22 and 60 percent, respectively. Those levels would apply to 40 percent of vehicles sold in 1993, rising to 100 percent of vehicles by 1995. Auto companies already meet that nitrogen oxide standard on cars sold in California.
One crucial deletion from the bill was an anti-smog provision that would have forced an increase in methanol-powered cars.
``We don't make methanol,'' comments Charles Cook, a vice president of Phillips Petroleum, speaking for the oil industry. Nor can existing cars burn methanol without engine damage.
The methanol provision would have obliged the oil and auto industries to outlay huge sums without a guaranteed return. It would have transformed the refining segment of the oil industry, which employs 120,000 and represents assets worth $150 billion. During January, oil companies produced 285 million gallons per day of gasoline and sold it for $225 million (plus $71 million in taxes).
There are other reasons for moving cautiously on methanol, Mr. Cook says. A mouthful of gasoline can't kill you; a mouthful of methanol can. Gasoline is an easier contaminant to remove from drinking water. Conditions that set a gas tank on fire make methanol explode.
New gasoline formulas containing fewer pollutants will be emphasized in a $15 million oil/auto research program, Cook says. Phillips has provided all the blends to auto company labs.
Retooling US refineries to produce reformulated gasoline looks like the cheapest way to meet emission standards, but ``we need to be sure that's a true statement,'' Cook says, since even that would cost billions. So methanol and compressed natural gas will be evaluated as well.
Reformulated gasoline is already on the market in southern California. The Atlantic Richfield Company sells over a million gallons a day of its unleaded blend to older cars and trucks made for leaded fuel, preventing the creation of 116 tons of pollution.
Southern California needs all the help it can get. The self-described ``superbowl of smog'' exceeded federal ozone standards on 176 days last year - nine times more than the next highest city outside California. It's so bad that the local air quality agency plans to regulate patio grills - for starts. ``I suppose you could put a catalytic converter on a lawn mower,'' a spokesman muses.