Northeast States Weigh California-Style Car Law

Eastern seaboard states in violation of federal clean air laws are considering cleaning up their acts by emulating California's stricter automobile emission standards.

New Jersey lawmakers, smarting from a recent Environmental Protection Agency order to rewrite the state's air pollution plan, will soon vote on so-called clean-car legislation that would set tougher pollution limits on all new vehicles sold in the state.

Similar legislation will come up in Connecticut, Maryland and Pennsylvania in their 2004 legislative sessions beginning next month.

Advocates of the cleaner car laws are optimistic the measures will be passed in New Jersey and Connecticut, but are less sure in Pennsylvania and Maryland, where efforts gained little momentum last year.

Environmentalists say tough California-style legislation is the single biggest thing lawmakers can do to improve the Northeast's notoriously polluted air. From Maryland to Maine, every state but Vermont is considered by the EPA to be in violation of federal clean air safety guidelines.

Under the federal Clean Air Act, states are allowed to follow either the EPA's vehicle emissions rules or California's more stringent standards, but they are not allowed to set their own standards.

"California's rules do a better job of protecting public health than the federal rules, and here's an opportunity for states to go another mile in pollution prevention," said Jason Mark of the Union of Concerned Scientists, which supports expansion of California's regulations.

New York, Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine have adopted legislation similar to California's Low Emission Vehicle (LEV II) program since its creation in 1990.

Under California's program, all passenger vehicles - including pickup trucks and SUVs after 2007 - must meet stringent tailpipe and evaporative emission standards. In addition, manufacturers are required to offer 6 percent of their sales as "Zero Emission Vehicles" and 4 percent as hybrid cars by model year 2005.

In New Jersey, the state Public Interest Research Group (NJPIRG) calculates that adopting California's car law will cut smog-causing emissions nearly 20 percent more than the federal standards by the year 2020.

"We're the smog capital of the country, and the Legislature and the governor need to reduce pollution from all sources, but especially from cars, which cause 30-to-40 percent of our smog and nearly 80 percent of the cancer-causing toxins in our air," said Dena Mottola, executive director of NJPIRG.

The automobile industry, which has continuously fought vehicle emission mandates, opposes expansion of California's car law.

"Mandated approaches are not the most effective nor the most efficient way to move technologies into the marketplace," said Joanne Krell, a spokeswoman for General Motors in Detroit. "The best way to address the environmental and energy issues that face every state in the nation is through voluntary, market-based applications of innovative technologies."

Local car dealerships also oppose the law, claiming there is little demand for hybrid and zero-emission cars and that the stringent emissions requirements will drive up automobile prices.

But California's Clean Air Resources Board, the agency that oversees LEV II, says the cost of manufacturing cars to California's standards is much less than initially estimated.

"Car companies always claimed it's too expensive to mandate cleaner cars, but clearly that's not true. Most companies are now offering these improvements for $100 or less (extra) per car," said air board spokesman Jerry Martin.

Connecticut's high population density - nearly 1,000 residents per square mile - and problems with sprawl have led to a large increase in commuters and the distance they drive to work, said state Rep. Mary Mushinsky (D). After trying unsuccessfully for 22 years to cut car pollution through zoning and smart growth laws, Mushinsky said she is now focused on cutting vehicle emissions.

"A big part of our state budget is health and health care for the poor, and we know statistically that fragile populations in urban areas are hardest hit by smog and car pollution. Whatever we can do to reduce those irritants and toxins in urban areas is a good thing," Mushinsky said.

Maryland Delegate James Hubbard (D) said he expects more support for a cleaner car measure next legislative session because residents of his state have grown alarmed at President Bush's efforts to relax clean air regulation of the nation's dirtiest power plants.

"Until President Bush decides to enforce pollution laws equally in all states, we're going to have to toughen up emissions in Maryland, because Bush is letting power plants in the Ohio valley and the Midwest continue pumping polluted air into our state," Hubbard said.