WASHINGTON — A last-minute U.S. proposal could endanger a proposed treaty designed to protect the Earth's endangered stratospheric ozone layer, diplomats meeting at an international conference in Montreal warned Tuesday.
The proposed treaty would be the first to control production and consumption of any major air pollutant, in this case a class of chemicals known as chlorofluorocarbons, which are used as aerosol propellants and in a host of manufacturing processes. Diplomats in Montreal hope to complete work on the treaty in time for a signing ceremony next week.
But the U.S. proposal, opposed by a number of U.S. allies and denounced by environmental groups, could delay indefinitely the time when the treaty takes effect because it would give a potential veto power to any country producing at least 10% of the world's chlorofluorocarbons, a group that includes Japan and the Soviet Union.
The current version of the treaty would allow a veto only by countries whose combined industries are responsible for 40% of the world's production. In addition to Japan and the Soviet Union, Europe and the United States control most of the world's production of chlorofluorocarbons.
Under the new U.S. proposal, all of those countries would have to ratify the treaty before its provisions could take effect. The current version of the pact would take effect as soon as the United States and any one of the other producers ratified it.
U.S. officials say that their position, hammered out last week in a series of meetings among White House, State Department and Environmental Protection Agency officials, is designed to ensure that U.S. industries are not put at a disadvantage to competitors in countries that do not observe the pact's provisions. Also, an EPA official said, the U.S. expects all major countries to agree to the treaty and, therefore, considers the veto more symbolic than real.
The U.S. proposal also drew immediate opposition from environmental groups that have sent observers to the conference.
"Either the White House is being not serious about chlorofluorocarbon reduction or they're being stupid about it" by giving U.S. trade rivals a veto over environmental policy, said David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The veto provision received support from the Soviet Union when it was proposed Tuesday at a private meeting of the heads of delegations. But it drew strong opposition from Canada, France, Australia, New Zealand and several Scandinavian countries, said Tom Clarkson, the head of New Zealand's delegation.
On Friday, Canada's environment ministry sent a letter to EPA Administrator Lee M. Thomas opposing the U.S. position, informed sources said.
Clarkson said that the proposed veto would be like "basing votes at the International Whaling Commission on the size of your catch."
Ozone at ground level is itself a major air pollutant, the chief component of smog. But ozone in the stratosphere, 30 miles above the Earth's surface, is the planet's crucial shield against cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation from the sun.
Scientists since the early 1970s have been gathering data suggesting that, as tons of extremely stable chlorofluorocarbons have floated upward from the surface into the stratosphere during recent decades, they have begun seriously to deplete that ozone shield.
The United States in 1978 banned non-essential uses of chlorofluorocarbons in aerosol cans and, since then, has been among the world's leaders in pushing for international controls on the chemicals. Recently, however, some Reagan Administration officials have sounded a different note.
Earlier this summer, for example, Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel suggested that depletion of the ozone layer could be handled by public education, such as counseling people to wear dark glasses and hats when out in the sun.