SETTING THE STANDARD
January 30, 1998
The debate surrounding the big three automakers' proposed National Low Emission Vehicle.
TOM BEARDEN: California has the nation's most serious pollution problem and has passed the nation's toughest anti-pollution laws over the last thirty years to try to deal with it. In the mid sixties, the state was the first to impose restrictions on vehicle emissions. The federal government followed in 1970, imposing national standards under the original Clean Air Act. California took advantage of a provision that allowed states to pass their own pollution control laws as long as they were equal to or more stringent than the federal rules, and continued to up the ante. Today, state law requires cars sold here have significantly lower tailpipe emissions than almost anyplace else in America. And those restrictions will get progressively tougher over the next several years.
In 1977, amendments to the Clean Air Act gave other states the chance to adopt California's laws, or to stay with the federal standard. Eventually twelve Northeastern states and the District of Columbia announced their intention to embrace California's standards. Detroit automakers saw that possibility as a serious problem for several reasons. First, they worried that it was the beginning of a balkanization of emissions standards, forcing them to sell different kinds of cars in different states. Kelly Brown is the director of environmental engineering at Ford.
KELLY BROWN, Ford Motor Company: What we saw happening in the Northeast, some of the states were starting to adopt California standards, but when they adopted the standards, they didn't just say give me the California standards; they wrote it into their own state words and their own state laws, and things weren't exactly the same. And it was getting to be a patchwork, there were so many states in the Northeast, one state had it, another state didn't, one state sort of had it, one was on a different timetable, we said, we've got to get back to kind of one standard.
TOM BEARDEN: Brown says that patchwork would also have caused an enormous burden on dealers.
KELLY BROWN: They sometimes have customers in four or five different states, and they found they'd have to keep two of everything on hand, and depending on what year, they had to be environmental experts to know what car to sell to what person based on where they lived or where they were going to register.
TOM BEARDEN: So in 1993, the big three automakers proposed to build what they called the "National Low Emission Vehicle," or NLEV, that would be sold in every state except California. It would be about 70 to 75 per cent cleaner than cars now sold outside of California.
KELLY BROWN: We developed the NLEV proposal to say, this will give you the same benefits as the California program, and we'll have a uniform standard across the rest of the country.
TOM BEARDEN: Late last year, after years of sometimes heated discussions, the Environmental Protection Agency endorsed the NLEV standard and encouraged the states and automakers to sign on. EPA administrator Carole Browner says it's a good deal because the Clean Air Act forbids the EPA from further tightening emissions standards before 2004.
CAROLE BROWNER, Administrator, EPA: Under the Clean Air Act we cannot require a cleaner car for five more years because of the work that we've done in partnership with the states, in partnership with the automobile manufacturers. This is a way to get a cleaner car sooner and cleaner air sooner.
TOM BEARDEN: But the automakers' offer was conditional: The 49 states would have to lock themselves into the NLEV standard until 2004. If they do, they forego the option to adopt California's evolving standards, which will eventually require automakers to offer substantial numbers of ultra-low and zero emission electric cars in 2003. The automakers argued that electric technology is still far from being commercially viable. But Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut's legislatures have already adopted the California standards. In Massachusetts, regulators say they need to require the same ultra-clean cars that California will demand if they are ever to clean up the state's air. State officials say cars and trucks create 43 percent of the smog choking their cities. They argue that must be reduced even as population grows, because three quarters of a million people here suffer from respiratory problems which are exacerbated by air pollution. Michelle Robinson is an environmental activist with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Boston. She says asking states to give up their right to demand ever-cleaner cars is asking too much.
MICHELLE ROBINSON, Environmental Activist: We think NLEV is a bad idea the way they set it up now for the Northeast because there's no reason for them to be locked into a one-car-fits-all or a one-size-fits- all program for almost 10 years, especially when California is currently looking at tightening "their" program, when new technologies are right out there on the horizon to be had.
TOM BEARDEN: Trudy Coxe is Massachusetts' Environmental Affairs Secretary.
TRUDY COXE, Massachusetts' Environmental Affairs Secretary: We've got to have that mix of cleaner gas-powered cars, alternative fuels, alternative vehicles, that mix together is going to provide us ultimately with a much lower level of air pollution coming from vehicles in general.
TOM BEARDEN: But EPA administrator Browner says the National Low Emission Vehicle program would yield about the same result as adopting California standards.
CAROL BROWNER: I think if we can see the cleaner car, the NLEV's sold across the country, the California program is not that much better. Remember, right now we can't require a cleaner car for the rest of the country. So this is a way to get a cleaner car, we hope for the entire United States, five years earlier.
TOM BEARDEN: But Coxe insists that Massachusetts is committed to even tougher standards.
TRUDY COXE: We're going to stick with our own program, which is the California program. So we will not opt into the NLEV program.
TOM BEARDEN: Even if it kills NLEV for the rest of the country?
TRUDY COXE: I don't think it will kill NLEV for the rest of the country.
TOM BEARDEN: But if it does?
TRUDY COXE: I don't think that's going to happen.
TOM BEARDEN: Dennis Minano is a General Motors vice president and chief environmental officer.
TOM BEARDEN: Bottom line: All or nothing?
DENNIS MINANO, General Motors: Bottom line is, it needs to be a national program.
TOM BEARDEN: So if one state doesn't come aboard, it's dead?
DENNIS MINANO: Clearly we'll have to re-evaluate the circumstances at that point.
TOM BEARDEN: Today, four Northeastern states--New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maine--decided to stick with their own programs to clean up their air and not sign on with NLEV. The automakers have until February 17th to decide whether they will still agree to build a cleaner car for the rest of the nation.