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Taking Another Look at Zero Emission Mandate

September 11, 2002|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Look for the California Air Resources Board to consider a new approach next year to its controversial Zero Emission Vehicle Mandate.

Insiders say the agency's staff, stung by General Motors Corp.'s so-far-successful lawsuit to block the 2003 model year imposition of the mandate, is reworking the plan and will present another approach in the spring to the politically appointed board.

The air board will appeal an injunction that GM obtained this summer, spokesman Jerry Martin said. But while the legal maneuvering goes on, he said, so is a new look at regulating tailpipe emissions.

The plan is not to do away with the ZEV mandate but to make it more responsive to technologies--such as hybrid gasoline-electric systems and ultra-clean internal-combustion engines--that have been developed in recent years.

It is the auto industry's adamant refusal to pursue further development of battery-electric technologies that has led the air board staff to begin rethinking its ZEV approach.

A revision of the ZEV mandate might make the air board's efforts to regulate auto emissions more palatable to the auto industry, which has been spending heavily to fight the present measure in Sacramento as well as in court.

California regulators have been at odds with auto makers in Detroit and Japan over the ZEV program since it was launched more than a decade ago. Because of the state's severe smog, California is the only state allowed by the federal Clean Air Act to regulate tailpipe exhaust.

That authority has led to the nation's most stringent controls on cars and light trucks--including a measure, just signed by Gov. Gray Davis, that directs the air board to come up with new rules by 2005 that would regulate automotive emissions of so-called greenhouse gases linked to global warming.

The ZEV mandate that GM blocked in court would have required major auto makers to build and offer for sale in California thousands of zero-emission vehicles starting with the '03 model year. So far, the only vehicles that meet the ZEV standard are the battery-powered electrics the auto industry says are too expensive to build and too functionally limited to interest a broad segment of the buying public.

GM's suit challenges the entire mandate as well as a series of amendments that, ironically, gave auto makers flexibility in choosing which type of cars to build. The amendments favor hybrid vehicles, fuel-cell engines and super-clean gasoline models over battery-powered cars. GM says the air board overstepped its authority in approving revisions to the 12-year-old ZEV program.

On June 14, U.S. District Judge Robert E. Coyle in Fresno issued a temporary restraining order blocking implementation of the mandate until the lawsuit is decided, which could take many months.

Meanwhile, GM and Ford Motor Co., two of only three auto makers to offer so-called full-function electric vehicles for public use, have pulled the plug on their programs.

Toyota Motor Corp. says it will continue to make a few hundred of its electric RAV4-EV compact sport utility vehicles each year for sale or lease to the public, but the numbers are so small they barely register in the state's vast motor pool.

More Clean Air Models

Good news for those who have tried to find one of Nissan's Sentra CA (for "clean air") models: After limiting production of the ultra-clean cars to just a few thousand since 2001, Nissan says the special emissions system will be used on all four 1.8-liter Sentra models sold in California and the CA designation will be dropped.

The system combines a clean gasoline engine that meets the state's super-ultra-low-emission- vehicle standard with equipment that traps fumes that would evaporate from the fuel lines and gas tank on hot days.

The result, Nissan says, are cars that produce fewer total emissions during a 20-mile round-trip commute than today's typical new vehicles do with their engines off.

The state agrees and has awarded the cars P-ZEV status--for "partial zero-emission vehicle"--meaning their sales will earn Nissan credit toward fulfilling the zero-emission mandate when the rules are resurrected.

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