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State OKs Compromise Attack on Air Pollution : Smog: Plan submitted to U.S. calls for alternative fuels, electric cars. But auto, trucking industries gain concessions.


Barely meeting a key federal deadline, the state Air Resources Board on Tuesday unanimously adopted a sweeping plan that aims to clean up California's smog with an array of hotly contested strategies that could cost consumers and industries billions of dollars a year.

After 25 hours of stormy testimony from business owners and environmentalists, the air board approved a compromise plan that pushes advanced technology in cars and trucks and includes concessions drafted to accommodate the oil, trucking and auto industries.

Provisions that will force widespread use of much cleaner alternative fuels and electric vehicles in California after the year 2004 were kept in the plan as a high priority. As a compromise, though, the board decided that it was too soon to determine how stringent a future standard might be necessary.

The new plan also relies heavily on a voluntary strategy drafted by Texaco and the trucking industry to use public money to buy and scrap thousands of older, polluting cars and diesel trucks beginning in 1996 in the four-county Los Angeles Basin, the state's smoggiest region.

The cost of buying cars at $1,000 apiece would be about $75 million a year by 1999. No sources of funds have been determined, but the ARB says the effort might be financed through a $7 annual fee tacked onto vehicle registrations or a $100 fee on new cars.

California's new blueprint for battling ozone outlines an ambitious 15-year agenda that is supposed to finally achieve the Los Angeles Basin's elusive goal of healthful air in 2010, the year mandated by Congress.

Under federal law, California had until Tuesday to submit a strategy outlining in detail how it would comply with a national health standard for ozone in six regions of the state or face more onerous rules and sanctions from the federal government.

The 11-member air board was under direction from Gov. Pete Wilson to protect the state's struggling economy but still meet federal clean air mandates as it wrestled with how to slash ozone--the pervasive, lung-damaging main ingredient of smog--by about 75%.

"We must understand what our actions mean to each and every sector of the economy," said Jacqueline Schafer, chairwoman of the ARB. "We are in competition with other states to ensure that California's quality of life is the best. That means that in attempting to ensure our environmental future we must be cognizant of the economic mortgage required."

The board decided in a 7-0 vote to strike a compromise over new technology for cars because a proposal by the ARB staff last week prompted outrage from environmentalists and businesses that support alternative fuel technology. But in a concession to the trucking industry, the ARB made standards forcing alternative fuels in heavy-duty trucks a lower priority, setting no stringent long-term emissions goals.

The new plan gives high priority to the proposal to begin scrapping old cars in the Los Angeles Basin at a pace of 6,000 vehicles in 1996, increasing to 75,000 a year in 1999.

But local air quality officials fear that the scrap program is too unrealistic and unenforceable to satisfy federal mandates, especially for the Los Angeles region.

"We think it's the wrong way to go," said James Lents, executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the agency that regulates air pollution in the Los Angeles Basin.

Environmentalists and businesses that back alternative-fuel vehicles criticized the ARB for giving in to influential industries. They said it is unfair to impose new fees on residents to pay for scrap programs when most of the burden should remain on industries that produce polluting vehicles and fuels.

"The CARB board wimped out on this whole thing," said Henry W. Wedaa, Orange County's representative on the Air Quality Management District Board and its chairman.

"Why should the public pay for this?" he said. "Why shouldn't the industries creating the problem solve their problem? This is just another typical scheme to get out of cleaning up their emissions. The real story behind the story from my perspective is that nobody wants to use alternative fuels."

Andrew Hirsch, a senior manager at Southern California Gas Co., said last week's draft version made "a mockery of the people like us who have tried to advance this technology so far." But Tuesday's final plan "puts back some teeth for increased technology," he said. "It's a good solid compromise."

Auto, trucking and oil executives, however, said the ARB was too optimistic in gauging the extent that alternative fuels and electricity could power cars and trucks in 2005. The price of alternative-fuel vehicles remains too high and too many technical shortcomings exist to guarantee widespread use, they said.

Industry executives contend that a program to scrap old vehicles would cost billions of dollars less and save jobs.

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