Driving Clean: Fighting the Auto Industry for Low-Emission Cars

Article excerpt

Which environmentalists do the auto companies fear most? Is it Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) clean air regulators? Congressional fuel economy watchdogs? Neither one, actually. The principal worry is a little state agency in California, the Air Resources Board (ARB), which sets emissions policy for the state.

Since California is the largest auto market in the country, accounting for 10 percent of all sales, the automakers can't afford to ignore its dictates.

What's more, California is not alone. Several other states, all in the Northeast and representing another big chunk of the national auto market, follow its lead on emissions. These states are New York, Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine, with others likely to be added soon as legislatures discover the benefits of clean emissions laws.

ARB'S stringent clean air rules have effectively forced the auto industry to produce new generations of low-emission vehicles, including gas-electric lay brids and so-called Partial Zero-Emission Vehicles (PZEVs), which are environmentally responsible versions of regular gasoline cars like the Honda Accord, Ford Focus, Toyota Camry and Dodge Stratus. "Some PZEVs actually produce lower levels of emissions than the hybrids," says Violette Roberts, community relations manager of the Mojave Desert Air Quality Management District. Anyone can buy the Honda Civic and Toyota Prius hybrid cars, but whether or not you can actually buy a PZEV depends on your state's approach to emissions. Some of them don't work as well outside of California because they're dependent on the state's mandated low-sulfur fuel.

Not surprisingly, the auto industry hates regulation of any kind, and it particularly hates ARB. One approach the companies have taken is litigation. General Motors, DaimlerChrysler and Isuzu sued ARB in 2001 (backed by the Bush administration) primarily because they didn't want to build thousands of battery powered "zero-emission" cars in the 2003 model year. The companies had a point, because battery cars, with limited range, have been a failure in the marketplace. GM leased only 600 of its high-tech EV- 1 model in California and Arizona.

The automakers dropped their lawsuits last August after ARB modified its regulations to allow the companies credit for producing PZEVs. As some industry observers note, PZEVs--whose tailpipes are more than 90 percent cleaner than the average 2003 production car, and produce zero evaporative emissions (the vapors that escape from fuel .lines even when vehicles are parked)--are actually as environmentally friendly as battery cars, when production of the electricity needed to keep the batteries charged is taken into account.

The auto industry has conducted a public relations blitz in California that some credit with persuading ARB to back down. Eron Shosteck, a spokesperson for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, is typically bombastic when he says, "Californians may lose the choice to buy the vehicles they need for their families and work . …