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State Scales Back Clean-Air Plan in Bow to Oil, Trucking Industries : Smog: Original version would have forced the use of electric cars and alternative fuel. Instead, Air Resources Board substitutes a voluntary auto scrapping program.


SACRAMENTO — Pressured by the oil and trucking industries, the staff of the California Air Resources Board on Wednesday scaled back key elements of its proposed clean-air plan that would have encouraged widespread production of electric cars and alternative-fuel trucks after the turn of the century.

Instead of state standards and programs to foster development of cars and trucks running on alternative fuels after 2003, the air board staff substituted proposals drafted by the oil and trucking industries that would offer motorists voluntary incentives to scrap their old cars and heavy-duty diesel trucks.

The major, last-minute changes in the state's proposed clean-air plan came at the onset of a two- to three-day hearing that began Wednesday afternoon and is expected to culminate in a vote by the 11-member board late today. The master plan for battling smog will set the course for California's powerful state and local air-pollution agencies for the next 15 years.

In the original version released a month ago, the board's air plan contained measures that would have forced two-thirds of all California cars to be fueled by cleaner, alternative sources such as natural gas by 2005, and would have required one-third to be powered by electricity. The plan also would have required stringent standards for heavy-duty diesel trucks aimed at the use of alternative fuels after 2004.

But the staff downgraded those proposals to backstop options, instead focusing on a voluntary program that would scrap an estimated 75,000 old cars a year and an undetermined number of diesel trucks.

Environmentalists and California businesses that back alternative-fuel vehicles lambasted the changes as a troubling step backward in achieving clean-air goals and an ill-conceived strategy to accommodate the oil and trucking lobbies. They worry that the staff's removal of the proposals for post-2003 vehicles could undermine California's five-year effort to bring mass-produced electric vehicles to the state.

"Compared to the October version of the plan . . . this is a hard one to swallow. It requires a big leap of faith," said Andrew Hirsch, an executive with the Southern California Gas Co., which has helped develop vehicles fueled by natural gas. "The auto and (trucking) and oil industries are very powerful groups that want to sustain the status quo."

But the three industries contend that the cost of meeting such standards is prohibitive and the technology still too uncertain, even though major technological advances in electric cars and fuel cells have been made in the past few years.

Representatives of the trucking and oil industries and the California Chamber of Commerce welcomed the staff's decision to pursue a scrapping program, saying it will clean the air without as much cost and loss of jobs as the original plan would have caused.

"You have a substantial number of older trucks out there that are gross emitters. You have to find incentives to get them off the road," said Karen Rasmussen, vice president of the California Trucking Assn., which represents 2,600 trucking companies.

Allan Zaremberg, senior vice president of the California Chamber of Commerce, said the original plan was "an overreaching of government regulations." He said the technology for electric cars and other clean-fuel options is too expensive and too unproven to require by 2003 or 2005.

But Hirsch said: "We don't understand why a standard should be pushed back when it can already be met today by commercially available technology," such as natural gas cars.

The board has already adopted regulations that require 2% of cars sold in California by major auto companies to be electric-powered beginning in 1998, increasing to 10% by 2003. Those mandates would remain intact under the new plan, but there would be no tightening of the restrictions after 2003.

The scrapping program is proposed to begin in 1996.

But many questions remain about the scrapping approach. Can clean-air targets be realistically met in that way? How much will it cost and where will the money come from? Is it realistic to think that thousands of car and truck owners will be willing to scrap their vehicles? Will the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has final veto power over the state's plan, accept such an approach?

The board says car owners should be offered $1,000 for each old car scrapped. To help pay for this, the oil industry and board staff suggest adding a $7 fee to vehicle registrations or a $100 fee on the price of new cars. Trucking industry officials advocate low-interest loans to encourage truckers to buy new, less-polluting vehicles.

"We're very concerned that this moves the (board) away from their strong stands to promote technological advancements," said Paul Helliker, an engineer with Calstart, a consortium of industries developing alternative-fuel cars.

The air quality staff has been under increasing pressure from Gov. Pete Wilson's office to accommodate the influential trucking and oil companies.

James Boyd, the board's executive officer, defended the scaled-back plan, calling it "comprehensive and very ambitious." The plan still contains, for example, a standard that would force California truckers to cut their emissions from diesel engines in half by 2002, requiring modifications in engines and methods of operation. The revised plan, Boyd said, still manages to bring all of California into compliance with air pollution health standards by 2010.

Under a deadline set by Congress, the state has until Tuesday to adopt a blueprint outlining how it will achieve air pollution health standards throughout the state by 2010. The state's goal is to create a strategy that can replace a clean-air plan developed by the Clinton Administration for the smoggiest regions of California that has been widely criticized as onerous and economically disruptive.

Under federal law, the state has until 1996 to prove it can cut smog-causing gases by 15% from 1990 levels, and then by 3% a year thereafter.

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