WASHINGTON - Like an earthquake's aftershocks, California's decision to make diesel engines meet the same pollution standards as gasoline powerplants is rattling the foundations of a joint government-industry program on future vehicles.
The multibillion-dollar program, Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, has chosen small, high-revving advanced diesel engines as the most promising technology for meeting its efficiency and affordability goals, especially if used in hybrid electric vehicles.
But environmental groups and industry officials say the new California standards effectively will outlaw diesels, even advanced designs, because they emit far more nitrogen oxide and small particles than gasoline engines.
What's more, the EPA is considering California-style rules for the next round of national air standards, called Tier 2.
'If you apply it nationwide, then you eliminate diesels nationwide,' said Reginald Modlin, senior manager of environmental affairs for DaimlerChrysler Corp. He believes the partnership would be left without a viable alternative technology.
'It's not like we had a palette (of technologies) to select from. That was the only one. There's nothing else on the list,' Modlin added.
TROUBLE FOR DIESELS
The California decision also is a jolt to companies already selling diesel-powered vehicles.
'No one's diesel will meet those regulations' said Fred Heiler, manager of product information for Mercedes-Benz of North America Inc..
The company sells 3,000 to 4,000 E300 turbodiesels a year in the United States, or more than 2 percent of total sales, and it believes the diesel engine 'still has great promise for reducing greenhouse gases,' Heiler said.
Volkswagen of America Inc. sells about 19,000 diesels a year in the United States, or roughly 10 percent of the volume of the models in which the engine is offered. It's available in the Golf, Jetta and New Beetle, which was named the winner of the 1999 EPA fuel economy crown.
Heiler of Mercedes-Benz said the diesel engine could be in trouble across the United States regardless of what the EPA decides to do with Tier 2 rules. He said that if other major states, such as New York and Massachusetts, adopt California-style rules, then, in effect, 'you kill the diesel nationally.'
Environmental groups prefer to see the EPA do the job itself.
In a joint letter last month to EPA, a dozen groups wrote that 'a strong Tier 2 program modeled on the California example will help assure that the next generation of Americans enjoys continued personal mobility without significant health damage from auto pollution.'
WHITE HOUSE PRESSURE?
The California Air Resources Board's Nov. 5 decision on diesels was based in part on an agency study that branded diesel exhaust particles 'toxic.'
A draft EPA report earlier this year called diesel emissions a probable human carcinogen, but the federal agency called for more study.
Some environmental activists say privately they fear the Clinton White House quietly is pressuring EPA to go easy on diesels.
The administration has invested not only taxpayer money but considerable political capital in the partnership. Over the past five years, administration officials, along with U.S. auto industry executives, repeatedly have cited it as an answer to a host of problems - including, increasingly, global warming.
The Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles was set up to demonstrate how advanced technology could boost fuel efficiency sharply. It is supposed to deliver by 2003 the prototype of an 'affordable family sedan' that would be about three times as efficient as today's cars.
Alden Meyer, director of government relations for the Union of Concerned Scientists, one of the groups calling for California standards nationwide, contended the federal government should spend its money on longer-term technology instead of trying to clean up diesels.
'It's not to say diesel technology can never meet that standard. If it can, more power to it,' he said.
'But to say that ought to be the major thrust of the federal government research agenda on new vehicle technology is ludicrous. There's much more promising technology that ought to be getting the research dollars.'
Frank O'Donnell, executive director of Clean Air Trust and a supporter of California-style rules, said government and industry should not be surprised about the obstacles to diesel engines.
The National Research Council, in its last review of partnership work, called the direct-injection diesel engine 'a high-risk candidate for meeting the PNGV goals.'
George Joy, federal partnership director, said program partners have not decided how to respond to the California decision, and he declined to speculate about the EPA's Tier 2 proposal, due early in 1999. But he agreed CARB's action has made the partnership's job tougher.
'There is no debate that it will be difficult (to meet the standards). It's a question of whether it will be technically possible,' he said.
He said progress is being made in research to make diesel exhaust cleaner, possibly with more advanced catalytic converters, but some of it is ' 'Star Wars' kind of technology.'
He referred to one national laboratory's experiments with electric current in exhaust to create a cleansing 'plasma.'
Rich Varenchik, spokesman for the California air board, said his agency has talked about ways to work with automakers to help them meet the new rules. But he rejected suggestions CARB has 'outlawed' diesels.
CARB: NO BAN ON ANYTHING
'We didn't ban anything. What we're saying is, 'Can the automakers make a diesel that's clean enough?' They say no, and that may be true, but nobody at the board said, 'Let's ban diesels.' '
EPA spokeswoman Martha Casey pointed out that automakers complained in 1970 that clean air standards proposed at that time would be 'impossible to meet.' But those standards, she said, since have been met and surpassed.
Staff Reporter Mark Rechtin in Los Angeles contributed to this report