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We Can Fight Smog Without Breaking The Bank

Environment: Commentary


The war against air pollution is a costly and frustrating regulatory morass. Despite spending $400 billion over the past 25 years, America is still fighting one of its most noxious forms of pollution--the ozone haze called smog. In the stratosphere, ozone protects humans from dangerous levels of ultraviolet light. But in the air we breathe, the same chemical harms everything from lungs to trees. Not only do levels of ozone violate federal air-quality standards in 93 U.S. metropolitan areas, but new studies suggest those standards aren't tough enough to protect health and the environment.

The U.S. is about to renew its assault on ozone. The 1990 Clean Air Act requires states with dirty air to develop blueprints by Nov. 15 for slashing emissions from cars, power plants, and other ozone sources. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency and 12 Northeastern states (plus the District of Columbia) are wrangling with the auto industry over a key part of the region's antismog drive: a plan that would require carmakers to sell cleaner "California" cars--including electric vehicles--in the Northeast.

COSTLY ROUTE. At stake is not just cleaner air but tens of billions of dollars. That's how much more taxpayers, auto buyers, and businesses will spend if the nation makes the wrong choices. Unfortunately, state and federal regulators may be heading down the more expensive road, as politics, ideology, and scientific uncertainty combine to perpetuate past mistakes.

To understand why, look at the chemistry of ozone. Two types of pollutants, nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), contribute to smog--but in different ways. Nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a form of NOx spewing from tailpipes and smokestacks, forms ozone directly. When zapped by sunlight, it gives up an oxygen atom, which then joins with oxygen gas (O2) to form ozone (O3). VOCs such as unburned gasoline, paint fumes, and natural hydrocarbons contribute through a more complicated route. They react with another form of NOx, nitrogen oxide (NO), to make NO2--thus supplying more fuel for the first ozone-making reaction.

So what's the best way to fight ozone--cut back on VOCs or on NOx? For decades, regulators put their money on VOCs. "The industries involved preferred hydrocarbon controls to NOx controls," explains University of Michigan atmospheric chemist Sanford Sillman, since those cuts were easier and cheaper. Besides, early computer simulations suggested that the strategy would work for most of the country. Only in California, where ozone sometimes soared to more than three times the current maximum federal standard of 120 parts per billion, did authorities mandate cuts in both.

In many urban areas, however, reducing VOCs hasn't worked. The reason, new research shows, is that emissions of hydrocarbons are three or four times higher than anyone expected. Some of these come from cars. Another big chunk comes from trees: Air over much of the Northeast contains more naturally occurring hydrocarbons than man-made VOCs. Given current levels of NOx, even eliminating man-made VOC emissions won't bring ozone levels below the federal standard in many areas. "The focus on VOCs and not NOx was a mistake," concludes atmospheric chemist James N. Pitts Jr. of the University of California at Irvine. "The country--outside of California--is now paying for that."

The U.S. continues to make the same blunder. While the strategy primarily should be aggressive reduction of NOx, federal and state regulators are pushing instead for added expensive cuts in hydrocarbons. The Clean Air Act, for instance, requires polluted areas to use gas spiked with extra oxygen--a so-called alternative fuel. The exygen, which makes the fuel burn more cleanly, comes from ethanol (made from corn) or methanol (made from natural gas). Studies show that these additives, which raise the cost of gas 2 cents to 4 cents a gallon, can increase NOx emissions yet offer only a small cut in VOC emissions. Worse, the EPA in June made good on a Clinton campaign promise to farmers, ruling that 30% of the oxygen must come from renewable sources, meaning ethanol, the more expensive and polluting option. "It's a terrible decision," says a top congressional aide.

A decision by Northeast states to require ultralow- and zero-emission autos could be harmful, too. Such mandates are being pushed by environmentalists, states such as New York and Massachusetts, and some EPA officials. Voltmobiles--electric cars--"hold great promise for energy strategy and rebuilding a healthy economy," says a top EPA official.

Those claims are questionable. And when it comes to ozone, electric cars may be a costly nonsolution. True, each vehicle is pollutant-free. But power plants supplying the juice spew out tons of NOx. This isn't a problem in Southern California, since most of its power plants are far from the smoggy Los Angeles basin. But in the Northeast, utility emissions of NOx are a major cause of smog. An internal EPA study shows that, under some conditions, NOx reductions from electric cars will be offset by increases from utilities. Cleaning up power-plant smokestacks will alter the equation. But even so, NOx benefits from electric cars will be small.

NO MAGIC BULLET. That's why states and the EPA should take the Big Three auto makers up on a proposal to replace the California plan in the Northeast with a low-emission, gas-powered car that would be phased in everywhere but California beginning in 1999. While this 49-state car would emit slightly more VOCs than ultraclean California vehicles, it would match them on NOx, spewing out only one-half the amount coming from today's cleanest cars. Spread over all cars sold, the extra cost would be less than $600 per vehicle for the 49-state car, vs. nearly $3,000 if auto makers build electric models for the Northeast. The plan would also cut pollution across the country, slashing the amount of NOx and VOCs blowing into the Northeast from the West and South.

Of course, the 49-state car is no magic bullet. States must also require dramatic cuts--up to 75%, some scientists estimate--in NOx emissions from utilities, factories, and other sources. Emissions trading would help the market find the cheapest reductions. States should deploy curbside pollution sensors to nab the dirty 10% of cars that account for half of today's auto emissions. Some cities also need to boost mass transit and impose restrictions on driving. But if the U.S. avoids electric-car mandates and repeals oxygenated-fuel regulations, it won't have to pay an unnecessarily high price to get its head out of the ozone.


Forcing electric cars on the Northeast won't get rid of smog. Neither will oxygenated fuels. Here are six steps that might make a difference:

-- Shift regulatory emphasis from volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to nitrogen oxides

-- Accept auto makers' proposal to build a cleaner 49-state car, instead of special cars for the Northeast

-- Tighten NOx emission standards for utilities

-- Let carmakers, utilities, oil companies, and other polluters trade emission credits, so the market can find the cheapest solutions

-- Use remote sensing to spot the 10% of cars that produce over half of all tailpipe emissions

-- Create incentives for using mass transit and car pools


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