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COLUMN LEFT/ ALEXANDER COCKBURN : A Kind, Clean Word for the Clunker : A flawed model sent regulators down the wrong road on smog.

March 15, 1992|ALEXANDER COCKBURN | Alexander Cockburn writes for the Nation and other publications

Bad science, Republican opportunism and neoliberal environmental regulation are now massing forces for merciless assault on that heart muscle of American civilization, the old car, or clunker.

The White House, against the deadline of a primary in the auto-producing state of Michigan, has formulated a plan whereby companies that buy old cars and then junk them could get "pollution credits." Under this wondrous regulatory procedure, recently given a ringing endorsement by Los Angeles' powerful South Coast Air Quality Management District, a polluting oil refinery could buy a credit from another company needing less than its allocation and show a corresponding reduction on its books. Meanwhile children across the street from the polluting refinery would continue to show high levels of toxic chemicals in their lungs.

The scheme claims a double benefit. Consumers would turn in their polluting clunkers, getting anywhere from $700 to $1,000 from companies needing the credits. New car sales would be given a boost. In 1990, Unocal, a Los Angeles oil company, bought and scrapped 8,376 pre-1971 cars, paying $700 each for them, in a bid to shift attention away from oil companies.

It's awe-inspiring to find so many bad ideas mustered under one roof, starting with the fact that auto thieves will now have a cash incentive to prey on poor people's old Plymouths or Chevys, as well as rich people's Mercedes and BMWs.

The central fact is that the abused clunker may well be generating less pollution in today's urban environment than the late-model automobile equipped with acatalytic converter. I say this as a collector and driver of old cars (ranging in antiquity from a 1957 Plymouth station wagon to a 1967 Chrysler 300, with Imperials, Valiants, Newports and a Dodge filling in the intervening nine years) who has long chafed under ignorant lectures about my supposed environmental irresponsibility.

The story begins more than 20 years ago, in the policy battles preceding the passage of the Clean Air Act. Environmental policy-makers and their scientific advisers were looking at two principal classes of compounds fueling the smog process: oxides of nitrogen and hydrocarbons.

The bureaucrats decided that it would be easier to control hydrocarbons as emitted in vapors of various solvents, including benzene, kerosene, gasoline and partially burned fuel in automobile exhaust. Regulation would be a matter of controlling nozzles at the gas pumps, adding tailpipe catalysts to burn unused fuel, controlling vapors in dry-cleaners and so forth.

This option seemed simpler than what would be required for even a minimal assault on oxides of nitrogen, generated by combustion of fuels such as coal, gas, kerosene and crude oil, and controlled by lowering the temperature of combustion. Simpler maybe but wrong. As a recent study sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences shows, two decades' worth of stringent regulatory effort on hydrocarbons has yielded very little in the reduction of air pollution, certainly nothing like the progress predicted in the original models.

One consequence of that faulty model was the modern car equipped with its catalytic converter. The converter further oxidizes the incompletely burned fuel, that is, hydrocarbons, in the raw exhaust. These hydrocarbons are burned with the help of the platinum catalyst (which explains why the converter gets so hot).

But the converter also acts as a catalyst on sulfur, a component of all gasoline. In the combustion process this sulfur is rendered into sulfur dioxide, which, as it crosses the platinum in the catalytic converter, becomes sulfur trioxide, which, with the addition of water (another consequence of gasoline combustion), becomes sulfuric acid. All cars equipped with catalytic converters are miniature sulfuric-acid factories.

One of the classic families of toxic compounds in smog is composed of sulphates. Release sulphuric acid into urban air laden with metal particles and you produce metallic sulphates, many of which are toxic.

So, though the supposedly virtuous modern car, equipped with its catalytic converter, may be producing less hydrocarbons in toto than my old car, the hydrocarbons that it is releasing are more reactive, as can be sensed by sniffing a modern car's exhaust, which is far more irritating to the nose. Nor is my old car a sulfuric-acid factory.

Though there is no doubt that 20 years of environmental regulation has reduced hydrocarbons, no one has yet demonstrated that in consequence the air is less toxic. Indeed the catalytic converters may have engendered greater toxicity, as early tests on rats--sedulously ignored--suggested. Bureaucratized science bred bad air, which clunker-napping and pollution credits promise to render even fouler.

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