WASHINGTON - Say goodbye to knee-jerk opposition from the auto industry to tough environmental rules.
The debate over new clean-air rules for cars and light trucks is shaping up as a fight between Big Oil and Big Auto - not the typical bout between carmakers and government.
The auto industry says it would accept far tougher tailpipe standards if it can be assured of low-sulfur gasoline nationwide. In effect, after decades of bickering and name-calling, automakers and the EPA are becoming allies.
Wary environmental groups suspect the automakers are more interested in a new 'green' marketing angle than clean air. Yet, regardless of motive, the attitudes of automakers clearly have shifted dramatically.
For most of the 30-plus years of the modern environmental movement, industry leaders routinely warned that clean-air laws would drive them out of business or make vehicles too costly or impractical.
'While recognizing we don't have the wherewithal today to get there, we're willing to say we'll do our darnedest,' said Jo Cooper, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
'I think that's a big change for this industry,' said Cooper, two weeks into her tenure representing the former Big 3 and six overseas-based American car companies.
The American Petroleum Institute, meanwhile, will go to the mat against nationwide low-sulfur fuel, said institute spokesman Mike Shanahan. He said a group of U.S. senators already is lined up against the EPA plan.
The oil industry argues that it should supply low-sulfur fuel only where air is dirtiest. Otherwise motorists where air is clean will pay at least 6 cents a gallon more for gasoline unnecessarily.
The EPA proposal, commonly called Tier 2, is under review at the White House and is likely to be made public this week - in time for the 30th Earth Day on Thursday, April 22 - or possibly next week.
The rules are expected to require sharp cuts in tailpipe emissions, especially smog-causing nitrogen oxide, and consolidation of pollution standards for cars and light trucks. Most would be phased in during the 2004-07 period. Larger trucks, such as the Ford Expedition and Chevrolet Suburban, would have until 2009.
That does not mean every truck would have to pollute as little as the cleanest car. The average emissions of a company's fleet would have to meet standards.
Cooper said the alliance likely will seek some revisions, including a study in 2004 so that rules could be altered if there are insurmountable technical hurdles.
NEW TECHNOLOGY NEEDED
Greg Dana, vice president and technical director of the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, said the big obstacle is emissions from cold engines.
He said some possible solutions are devices that preheat catalytic converters and materials that temporarily absorb pollutants for later, gradual release.
The EPA, in an analysis last year, estimated new rules would add $136 to $161 to the cost of a vehicle. Dana said the estimates do not sound unreasonable, but some of the required technology still may need to be invented.
The Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental group, said last week it too generally will favor Tier 2 rules but believes they should be tougher on big sport-utilities and diesel engines.
Union of Concerned Scientists Senior Advocate Michelle Robinson agreed that current automaker attitudes contrast sharply with those of 30, 20, even 10 years ago.
She attributed the change to regulatory pressure from California and northeastern states, public demand for a cleaner environment and the industry realization that environmentalism can be a marketing tool.