WASHINGTON - Carmakers say they are trying to be green, but that didn't win them any concessions from the Clinton administration when it issued tough new rules on tailpipe emissions.
President Clinton called the rules, paired with sharp cuts in sulfur in gasoline, 'the boldest steps in a generation to clean the air we breath.'
Administration officials didn't grant auto industry requests for changes that would help automakers comply. 'We think they can do it anyway,' said EPA Administrator Carol Browner.
In fact, car companies quickly issued statements saying the rules are a challenge but will be met. In a sign of automakers' growing spirit of one-upmanship on the environment, Ford Motor Co. said it is 'prepared to meet or exceed' the rules. They begin to take effect in 2004.
The industry's acquiescence means Congress or the courts likely won't intervene to block or change the rules, commonly called Tier 2. 'They made this bed for themselves,' said a congressional staffer close to the issue.
The intentions of the oil industry are less clear.
Bob Slaughter, general counsel for the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, said it's too early to tell what his industry will do.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate clean air subcommittee, said the final rules are better than the initial EPA proposal in May. But they still could cause fuel-supply problems.
Automakers warn that if the rules' fuel provisions are blocked, they might not be able to meet their own Tier 2 obligations. The rules would require the biggest refineries gradually to reduce sulfur in gasoline from the current average of 330 parts per million to 30 parts per million in 2005.
In the past 30 years, the emissions produced by the typical new car have been cut by 97 percent. The new rules require further cuts of up to 77 percent for cars and up to 95 percent for light trucks. The main targets are smog-causing hydrocarbons and oxides of nitrogen.
Manufacturers still will be able to build vehicles with a variety of emissions levels as long as their overall fleet average meets the rules. The standards apply to vehicles up to 10,000 pounds gross vehicle weight. That includes the biggest sport-utilities.
The main revisions automakers sought in the original Tier 2 proposal were as follows: a technology review before full implementation; a two-year-longer phase-in; an extra emissions category for the largest, hardest-working vehicles; and ultimately a near-zero requirement for sulfur in gasoline. None was in the final rules issued Tuesday, Dec. 21.
'The auto companies are disappointed, big time, about the fuel,' said Jo Cooper, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, representing U.S.-based and overseas-based companies.
But Margo Oge, director of EPA's Office of Mobile Sources, said the agency has the right to tighten the sulfur rule further if it finds the new 30 parts per million standard keeps carmakers from introducing new technologies.
Greg Dana, the alliance vice president for environmental affairs, disputed EPA claims that EPA engineers were able to use off-the-shelf parts to bring a Ford Expedition and Chevrolet Silverado into compliance with the rules as they will exist when they are implemented fully in 2009.
Dana said anyone can put a bigger catalyst on a vehicle, but automakers also must meet requirements for driveability, fuel economy, on-board diagnostics 'and on and on and on.'