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Auto Emissions and The Environment

In his first term President Bush proposed $1.2 billion in research funding for hydrogen-powered automobiles. He called on Americans for their support, saying "Join me in this important innovation to make our air significantly cleaner, and our country much less dependent on foreign sources of energy." What's wrong with the cars we have now? Today, personal vehicles account for 40% of all U.S. oil consumption and 19% of all U.S. carbon emissions.


Today, 54% of the oil used in the United States is imported — the highest rate of dependence on imports in the nation's history. The majority of this oil comes from the Middle East, where 65 to 75 percent of oil reserves are concentrated.

It took over 200 million years for the oil beneath the earth's surface to form. In the past 200 years, we have already used half of that reserve. If current rates of consumption continue, the world's remaining oil would be used up in 40 years. Right now, two-thirds of the oil used around the world powers transportation vehicles, and half goes to passenger cars and light trucks. Being conscious of our fuel use will help to conserve resources for future generations.

Transportation involves the combustion of fossil fuels to produce energy translated into motion. Pollution is created from incomplete carbon reactions, unburned hydrocarbons or other elements present in the fuel or air during combustion. These processes produce pollutants of various species, including carbon monoxide, soot, various gaseous and liquid vapour hydrocarbons, oxides of sulphur and nitrogen, sulphate and nitrate particulates, ash and lead. These primary pollutants can, in turn, react in the atmosphere to form ozone, secondary particulates, and other damaging secondary pollutants. Combustion also produces carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas. (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Division for Sustainable Development)
These environmental concerns about the country's transportation habits have been studied extensively. The tailpipe emissions from cars and trucks account for almost a third of the air pollution in the United States. Although smog is produced by many factors, including sunlight, temperatures, winds and "basin" effects (such as those that affect the air quality in Los Angeles), the air pollution caused by transportation is a major contributor. In their Sprawl Report 2001, the Sierra Club graded the car and truck smog in America's 50 largest cities using data from the EPA. The area containing New York City scored best, with a grade of C+, creating 54 pounds of smog from cars and trucks per person per year. Twelve of the top 50 cities earned a grade of F, including Louisville, Kentucky, which has 137 pounds of smog from cars and trucks per person per year. The full Sprawl Report 2001 is available on the Sierra Club Web site. And check the air quality in your state by consulting our environmental resource map.

The Clean Air Act of 1970 gave the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency broad authority to regulate motor vehicle pollution, and since then, emission control policies have become progressively more stringent. In addition, the EPA has published various fact sheets, such as "Your Car and Clean Air: What YOU Can Do to Reduce Pollution." The EPA advocates some easy changes to transportation habits such as:

- Avoiding unnecessary driving by consolidating trips, telecommuting, carpooling, using public transit, and choosing clean transportation alternatives such as biking and walking.
- Maintaining your car properly, something that will not only reduce the car's emissions and enhance its performance but will extend its life, increase its resale value, and optimize its fuel economy.
- Driving your car wisely; whenever possible, avoid things like idling, stop-and-go driving, air conditioning, high engine loads, idling in cold temperatures, and spilling or overfilling when refueling.

Environmental Defense offers tips to maximize fuel economy and minimize the emissions your vehicle generates, in Vehicle Use: Driving Practices.

The EPA also provides Tips to Save Gas and Improve Mileage, including pointers on what to consider when buying a new car. All new cars must meet federal emissions standards. But as vehicles get older, the amount of pollution they produce increases. Vehicles with better fuel economy may produce less pollution over time than vehicles with lower fuel economy. The United States Department of Energy and the EPA produce the Fuel Economy Guide each year to help car buyers choose the most fuel-efficient vehicle that meets their needs.

Only about 15% of the energy in the fuel put in the gas tank of a conventional car gets used to move the car down the road or run useful accessories like air conditioning or power steering. The rest of the energy is lost. Because of this, the potential to improve fuel economy with advanced technologies is enormous.

Clean vehicles are vehicles that emit extremely low or no air pollution. This category includes electric vehicles (EV's), hybrid and fuel cell vehicles:

An electric vehicle is one powered by a battery, the most environmentally sound vehicle option in operation. They are the only true zero-emission vehicles on the road. For over a century, these vehicles have been used in industrial plants where internal combustion engine exhaust poses health risks, and for light-duty transportation.

Hybrid vehicles are powered by a combination of a combustion engine and an electric motor. Hybrids can double gas mileage while halving emissions. The heat generated during braking is stored as electricity in the car's battery pack and then is used to provide extra power for accelerating. Hybrid vehicles rely on gasoline stored in a conventional fuel tank, and do not need to be plugged into an external electricity source. The U.S. Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency feature an extensive section on hybrid vehicles on their Fuel Economy Web site, including a side-by-side comparison of some hybrid vehicles on the market, a section on tax incentives, a description of how hybrids work, and links to sites where you can learn more about hybrid vehicles.

Fuel cell vehicles are not yet available on the market. They are powered by electrochemical engines that harness the reaction of hydrogen and oxygen. The sole byproducts are water and heat. Hydrogen can be derived from a number of diverse sources, such as trees and plants (biomass), gases generated at landfills, and from other renewable energy sources, such as geothermal steam, sunlight and wind. Hydrogen can also be extracted from a hydrogen-rich fuel, such as methanol, ethanol, or natural gas and can be utilized in its pure form.

For more about advanced technologies currently available in the U.S., see the Fuel Economy page on alternative fuel vehicles.

President Bush pledged funding to advance such technologies, but it will be decades before hydrogen-powered cars are widely available to consumers. In the meantime, some in Congress are pushing for an interim solution...requiring cars to get better mileage now by increasing fuel efficiency standards.


in 2002, Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and John Kerry (D-MA) proposed a bill to raise fuel economy standards to 36 miles per gallon by 2015 in order to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and to eliminate the need to drill in the Arctic. The bill was defeated.

But that bill isn't the last proposal Congress will hear on this topic. Other efforts have included one by bipartisan coalition of U.S. Senators, led by Senators Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) introduced legislation to require automobile manufacturers to raise fuel economy standards for light trucks and sport utility vehicles (SUVs) to 27.5 miles per gallon by 2011. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) also introduced a bill to close a tax loophole that promotes the purchase of the least efficient SUVs by allowing business owners to receive a tax deduction of up to $25,000 for buying heavier vehicles. This deduction would be raised to up to $75,000 under the administration's recent economic plan. And, as NOW's story "Air Wars" illustrates, states are now taking the initiative in setting stricter standards for auto emissions — and facing a fight from federal regulators.

Further resources:

Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers is a trade association composed of 10 car and light truck manufacturers with about 600,000 employees at more than 250 facilities in 35 states. The Alliance serves as a leading advocacy group for the automobile industry on a range of public policy issues.

Coalition for Vehicle Choice
The Coalition for Vehicle Choice (CVC) is a non-profit organization created to preserve the freedom of Americans to choose motor vehicles that meet their needs and their freedom to travel.

The Detroit Project
Americans for Fuel Efficient Cars (AFEC) is a nonprofit group dedicated to decreasing America's reliance on foreign oil, formed to mount a citizens' ad campaign aimed at getting people to stop driving SUVs.

Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Network
A series of fact sheets where you can read success stories about how cities and counties are putting new energy efficiency and alternative energy measures into practice, reducing energy costs, and protecting the environment as well.

The EnviroLink Network
The Transportation section of the EnviroLink Network provides links to Actions You Can Take, Articles, Educational Resources, General Info, Government Resources, Organizations, Publications on the following topics: Alternative Fuel Vehicles, Bicycles, Mass Transit, Telecommuting, Transportation Alternatives, and Transportation Pollution.

Green Vehicle Guide
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provides consumers with a simple tool to help them make the link between vehicles and the environment during their vehicle-buying decisions.

Union of Concerned Scientists
The Union of Concerned Scientists is a nonprofit partnership of scientists and citizens combining rigorous scientific analysis, innovative policy development and effective citizen advocacy to achieve practical environmental solutions.

Sources: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Fuel Economy; "Air Pollution from Ground Transportation," United Nations

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