Sparks Fly Over Electric-Car Mandate in California

In controversial move, California officials consider pushing back the 1998 deadline for putting smog-free cars on the road

OUTSIDE, the smog was as dense as a San Francisco fog. Inside, the air crackled with the polite anger of those who want to scrub the sky clean.

''Consumers want the electric car,'' says Melissa Kasnitz, with the California Public Interest Research Group. Speaking at a packed public forum held by the California Air Resources Board, her message grew more stern: ''Don't cave in and strand the companies that have developed it.''

The emotion is symbolic of the growing debate in California over when and how to put electric cars on the streets - one with implications for US auto manufacturers and state lawmakers across the country.

In recent weeks, California's Air Resources Board (CARB) has waffled on its ambitious mandate requiring 2 percent of cars sold in the state to be smog-free by 1998. Environmentalists and critics charge the state is capitulating to oil- and auto-industry pressures. But underlying this latest flareup is the question: Can the needed technology be perfected in time to meet these goals?

The state's Air Resources Board argues no. According to a CARB study of firms worldwide, batteries available by 1998 will limit cars to 100 miles without a recharge. Many think that limitation could irreversibly ruin public acceptance of the new technology.

''How do you make this program a success?'' asks California Environmental Protection Agency's Dan Pellesier. ''Not by forcing vehicles onto the road and into the showroom that don't meet customer expectations.''

Driven by the free-market

But criticism of CARB has been swift and pointed. ''The [CARB] board ... is preparing to offer an agreement based on 'trust me' promises by the industries that fought health and safety advances such a catalytic converters ... all in the name of a free market,'' says Ms. Kasnitz.

And according to press reports, the auto industry is much more advanced in its ''zero-emissions'' technology than observers expected. American carmakers have pressed ahead, in part fueled by concerns over Japanese competition. They may begin marketing electric cars as soon as 1996. General Motors is already testing electric-car models; Chrysler and Ford reportedly have models in the works.

If California backs down from its 1990 landmark law, similar restrictions in place in New York and Massachusetts could be affected.

Critics charge it would also slow electric-car development by eliminating a driving force behind technological advances so far. ''There is very strong symbolism involved in what message is being sent to different companies,'' says Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis.

CARB chairman John Dunlap promises that overall smog levels will still be reduced in accordance to the Clean Air Act even if the state loosens its current electric-car requirements. The 1990 law was intended to help the state meet federal clean-air standards by 2010. It holds that some 22,000 cars sold by major automobile manufacturers in California must be exhaust-free beginning in 1998. The percentage is set to rise to 5 percent in 2001 and 10 percent in 2003.

New proposals

Alternatives to the law proposed this week include introducing more low-emissions vehicles rather than requiring a small pool of zero-emissions cars; modifying the percentage of electric cars mandated each year; permitting manufacturers to buy and sell pollution credits; and allowing flexibility on earlier standards as long as overall goals are met by 2003.

The CARB board is expected to receive recommendations from its staff on Dec. 14, and give new directives between then and March 1996. But several observers say their decision is already made.

''We feel these public forums are just window dressing for CARB to say they considered all the sides,'' says Dave Modeset, executive director of the California Electric Transportation Coalition.

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