Driving Away Pollution

Your next new car or truck will be the cleanest-burning one you've ever owned.  And it means the end to the already-diminishing problem of air pollution.<?xml:namespace prefix = u1 /> <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />


This week Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Mike Leavitt unveiled seventeen model year 2004 vehicles meeting tough new emissions requirements.  These provisions, which begin now and will be fully phased in by the end of the decade, demand 77-95 percent reductions in exhaust emissions for cars, SUVs, minivans, pickups, and all sizes of trucks.  EPA is also requiring sharp reductions in sulfur content in both gasoline and diesel fuel, thereby allowing a new generation of pollution control devices to be used.


“It's a simple formula,” said Leavitt.  “Cleaner vehicles plus cleaner fuel equals cleaner air.”


EPA estimates compliance costs at $70 to $250 per vehicle and less than 2 cents per gallon of fuel, though others believe the costs will be higher.


Partisan critics have been quick to point out that these rules were put in place by the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Clinton administration, but they at least dispel the oft-repeated assertion that the Bush EPA has rolled back or even gutted such clean air measures.


Motor vehicles are still the largest source of smog-forming compounds and several other types of pollution, but the average vehicle on the road today is about 90 percent cleaner than those built during the 1970s.  The newest vehicles are up to 99 percent cleaner.


Past reductions in vehicle pollution, along with emissions reductions from power plants and factories, have led to dramatic improvements in air quality.  A recent EPA report concludes, “Since 1970, aggregate emissions of the six principal pollutants have been cut 48 percent.”


Granted, air pollution has certainly not been eliminated—nor will it ever be—but the original goals set out in the 1970 Clean Air Act have largely been met.


Every year, emissions decline further as older and dirtier vehicles are retired and replaced with cleaner and more durable new ones.  The new standards will accelerate this process, though it will take several years before these cars and trucks predominate on the roads.


Predicted increases in the number of vehicles in use and total miles traveled won't come close to slowing this progress.  Such increases over the past three decades were more than offset by the dramatic declines in emissions per vehicle, and there is no reason to believe this trend will change.  In addition, the shift in consumer preferences away from passenger cars and towards SUVs will have no effect, as the new standards apply more or less equally to both.  Indeed, a new SUV, even a large one, is considerably cleaner than a ten-year-old economy car.


Over the long term, these new standards signal nothing short of the end to air pollution as we know it.  “Even after accounting for growth, total vehicle emissions will decline more than 80 percent during the next twenty years or so,” concludes American Enterprise Institute visiting fellow Joel Schwartz, author of No Way Back: Why Air Pollution Will Continue to Decline.  At those levels, any lingering public health threat from air pollution would virtually cease to exist.


Of course, many activists and regulators are reluctant to admit success, and they can be expected to downplay the progress.  But the reality is that Americans are literally driving towards clean air, and the end of the journey is in sight.