The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has cleared the way for automakers to produce hydrogen-powered fuel-cell cars to meet zero-emission vehicle requirements in California and 10 other states.
In a waiver signed last week, EPA officials approved amendments adopted in 2003 by the California Air Resources Board that allow manufacturers to produce fuel cells as an alternative to battery-powered cars and light trucks previously required by the state.
"This is a real Christmas gift for all of us," Air Resources Board Chairman Dr. Robert Sawyer said in a statement. "All Californians will breathe easier because of this measure, and the technology that makes these clean cars possible can now be made available to everyone."
Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington have adopted California's rules, touted by state regulators as the toughest in the world. The rules were amended after automakers challenged them in court.
"This waiver simply reflects the prominence of fuel cells," EPA spokesman John Millett said. "Fuel cells have really taken off."
Fuel cells use hydrogen and oxygen to run an electric motor.
Automakers had mixed reactions. General Motors spokesman Dave Barthmuss said fuel-cell vehicles were "very viable to be a portion of any automaker's compliance strategy."
"A lot of milestones are being met, and a lot of progress is really being made" in developing the vehicles, he said.
GM plans to put 100 fuel-cell vehicles on the road next year as a demonstration project, he added.
Barthmuss also said the air board should be willing to review its requirements so they stay in line with the "pace of technology."
Ford Motor Co. spokeswoman Jennifer Moore said that much uncertainty remains about fuel-cell vehicles, and that the company agrees with a U.S. Energy Department forecast that the vehicles won't be available in large numbers before 2015.
But California officials who fought for the measures painted a rosier picture, noting that the waiver also covers hybrid and super-low-polluting, gasoline-powered vehicles known as partial zero-emission vehicles.
California initially adopted its regulations in 1990, requiring that 10% of new cars sold in the state by major manufacturers by 2003 be zero-emission vehicles. The rules have been modified several times since, largely because of legal challenges by automakers.
Currently, they call for 2% of new cars from the six biggest automakers to be zero-emission vehicles, 2% to be gasoline-electric hybrids and 6% to be partial zero-emission vehicles.