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Bush Clears Air on Pollution, but for California It's Mainly Rhetoric

June 18, 1989|Mary D. Nichols | Mary D. Nichols is an environmental attorney in Los Angeles

Large chunks of the clean-air package President George Bush unveiled with great fanfare last week are relevant to California only for the rhetorical tone of the press release and White House fact sheet.

Despite earlier rumors, the Bush Administration has endorsed the basic structure of the 1970 Clean Air Act, with its commitment to achieving health-based standards within enforceable deadlines and a strong federal program to push technological innovation as the means to limit pollution. Ambitious plans adopted earlier by the South Coast Air Quality Management District and tougher automobile emission standards recently enacted for new California cars by the state Air Resources Board are clearly acknowledged and, in watered-down form, proposed for the rest of the country. California air-quality officials have naturally greeted the Bush proposals with relief and even some cautious enthusiasm.

The Bush plan, although hard to evaluate because it lacks the specifics said to be in a coming message to Congress, will certainly allow state and local agencies to get on with the business of cleaning up industrial pollution--including smaller and more exotic sources like spray deodorants and back-yard barbecues. But the major cause of urban smog is our transportation system--cars, trucks, buses and the fuels they burn as we drive more of them each year over longer commuting distances. Taken together, vehicles cause more than 80% of Los Angeles smog. Unfortunately, there are some disturbing ideological signals in the President's strategy for cleaning up current mobile-source pollution, and a total lack of vision for the future growth and direction of our transportation-based economy.

Bush's plan would move the new-car standard for hydrocarbons--one of the two necessary ingredients for photochemical smog formation--toward the California standard within some unstated period of time. Nitrogen oxides, the other smog culprit, and carbon monoxide, a poisonous gas, are left at their current levels. This reflects the common consensus among automotive engineers that little more can be done to improve the emissions of cars with conventional engines using current fuels and certification procedures. Instead, Bush proposes to mandate, on a phased schedule, the introduction of cars using "clean" fuels, such as methanol, ethanol or natural gas, beginning in 1995. This clean-fuels initiative, although limited to the nine regions with the worst automotive pollution problems in the country, is ambitious enough to fulfill a campaign pledge to Midwestern farmers to put "corn in every car."

Clean fuels are a necessary component of any strategy to meet and maintain clean-air goals in Southern California and other major metropolitan areas. California air and energy officials have been sponsoring research and development activities with alcohol-fueled cars for a decade. The spotty recent history of the national clean-fuels program parallels the experience of the 1960s and '70s with clean engines. Every year or two, some inventor or manufacturer comes up with a new design (or revives an old one that was lost or suppressed); publicity and public interest follow and legislation is introduced to mandate the new technology.

In the classic American folk legend, Preston Tucker and his clean, efficient car are steam-rollered by nasty corporate giants whose profits are threatened. Similarly, every so often we enjoy a photo-feature on some farmer whose truck operates happily on chicken droppings or corncobs. These stories aren't false, they just don't provide a good basis for federal law. We only have to look back a few years to find serious efforts to mandate diesel engines as a cleaner alternative to gasoline. Remember the Wankel engine, once touted as the solution to Detroit's problems? Or Cornelius Dutcher and his steam-powered car?

Because elected officials lack the time, expertise and long-term focus to make wise choices about emerging technologies, Congress chose in 1970 to set long-term, tough standards beyond the reach of then-available emissions-control technology. Lawmakers then left the choice of method to the private sector, with strong guidance from the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Ironically, Bush's attempt to find a moderate environmental position, so clearly evidenced in the acid rain and toxics portions of the plan, appears to be a radical shift in philosophy. It directs a transformation of U.S. fuel usage, away from oil toward natural gas (the raw material from which methanol is produced, or which can be used directly as fuel in liquid or compressed form) and grain-derived alcohol.

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