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Sometimes, More Is Less

June 18, 2004

Original thinker Carl Moyer died in 1997, and without an infusion of new money, the successful air cleanup program named after him is about to die as well. Moyer, a mechanical engineer, pioneered using financial incentives to phase out old diesel engines. Since its inception six years ago, the statewide Carl Moyer program has helped replace an average of 4,000 aging engines each year with cleaner technology.

Diesel emissions are particularly noxious. A study five years ago blamed diesel exhaust for 71% of the cancer risk from air pollution in Southern California.

The state bond that funded the diesel incentive program has almost dried up. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposes to keep it going with a little smog-fee sleight of hand: Currently, car owners pay a $6 fee for the first four years after buying a new vehicle, during which smog checks aren't required. Under the governor's plan, the fee would double to $12 a year, but owners would be exempt from smog checks for six years.

The exchange would provide about $61 million a year to keep replacing those old engines, more than the old Moyer budget, and also would fund an ongoing program to help low-income motorists get their polluting cars repaired.

There's a price. There's always a price. During the two extra years without checks, the smog systems on at least a few cars will go out of whack without anyone detecting it. In fact, during the first, partial year of Schwarzenegger's proposal, those extra tailpipe emissions would add more pollution than the Moyer program would remove.

But that changes quickly, and by the year 2010, with smog systems improving and the Moyer program in full swing, the two-year extension would add 2.6 tons a day of pollution to California's air, while the diesel program would sponge out 33 tons.

The state has to invent and fund its own diesel reductions because the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a double whammy in recent months. It said state air quality officials could not require fleet operators to buy cleaner engines when they replace old diesels, and it allowed Mexican trucks free access to U.S. roads even though they emit much more diesel pollutants than the older domestic models. In fact, the governor should increase the fees a bit more to help fund his other smog-fighting proposal, to buy clunker automobiles from their owners.

In an ideal world, we wouldn't have to add pollution to subtract pollution. Ideal, though, isn't how any sane observer would describe California's current finances. In that case, trading smog checks for diesel pollution is a bargain for everyone.

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