WASHINGTON - The Clinton administration's new clean-air proposal gives manufacturers credits for cleaning their vehicles sooner than required and appears to allow use of some diesel engines.
Those potential industry benefits emerge from the fine print of the voluminous proposal. The plan was announced April 30 and was revealed in detail on the EPA's Internet site Monday, May 3.
The advantages are in addition to an expected boon to suppliers of catalytic converters and electronic engine controls. Vehicle makers will need advanced versions of that equipment and other devices to comply with the so-called Tier 2 rules, beginning in the 2004 model year.
Automakers could earn credits by producing vehicles in 2001-03 that are cleaner than the average fleet standard that will be required under Tier 2. They could use the credits to ease the Tier 2 phase-in schedule. By 2009, all cars and light trucks up to 8,500 pounds gvw are to meet a single standard.
But uncertainties remain. At most, vehicle makers cautiously support the rules, which the EPA estimates would add as much as $200 to the cost of a vehicle.
TOO TOUGH FOR TECH?
'Obviously the devil is in the details,' said Jo Cooper, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents nine car and truck companies that have more than 90 percent of the U.S. market. 'But it does not look that different from what we anticipated.'
Dennis Minano, General Motors' vice president for energy and environment, said he's concerned that the rules may be too stringent for some of the advanced engine technologies needed to improve fuel economy and curb the emissions that may cause global warming.
He referred specifically to lean-burn engines. They save fuel but produce more nitrogen oxide, a precursor of ozone in smog. Industry officials also worry about the future of diesel engines. Diesels also are more efficient, but they produce dirtier and possibly carcinogenic emissions.
Last December, when California adopted its own new clean-air rules for the post-2003 period, industry and environmental groups said the state had effectively outlawed diesels.
Frank O'Donnell, executive director of Clean Air Trust in Washington, said the Tier 2 rules probably would allow some very clean diesels and that most environmentalists would prefer more restrictions against diesels.
THE SULFUR DILEMMA
Roland Hwang, transportation program director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, went farther. He called the EPA's Tier 2 'diesel-friendly.'
Although the proposal apparently contains no killer surprises for vehicle makers, it does lack some provisions the industry had sought.
In response, EPA Administrator Carol Browner said the agency will accept public comment on the industry request for an independent study. That effort would take effect in 2004 and determine if technology is on the horizon to implement the rules fully.
That means the EPA is at least open to the idea of adding the study to the rules before adopting them by the end of this year.
Vehicle makers also want more time to phase in larger light trucks, such as the Ford Expedition and the Chevrolet Suburban. They want until 2011 instead of the EPA's 2009. And they say they eventually will need even less sulfur in gasoline than what the EPA has proposed.
OPPONENTS OF THE PLAN
As it is, the petroleum and refining industries are fighting the EPA's plan to require gasoline nationwide with an average of 30 parts per million of sulfur by 2004. The current average is 330 ppm. Ultimately, vehicle makers want 5 ppm.
The oil industry, which has countered with a proposal for low-sulfur fuel only in dirty-air states, is asking Congress to intervene. But if lawmakers bow to refiners, President Clinton could veto legislation aimed at blocking Tier 2.
Of course, vehicle makers have their own friends on Capitol Hill. A spokesman for Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the House Commerce Committee, said Dingell is opposed to opening the federal Clean Air Act for further revisions. The last big rewrite in 1990, guided through Congress by then-Chairman Dingell, authorized the EPA to set the Tier 2 rules.