Third volley for cleaner cars

Cars run cleaner these days, but the coming year will likely bring more discussion about making them cleaner still.

Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Democrat from Greensboro, plans to reintroduce legislation calling for North Carolina to adopt clean air standards similar to California's legislation to reduce vehicles' emissions of greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide.

"We have been fighting this fight forever, and the car lobby has been killing us," said Harrison, who has introduced similar bills in the two previous sessions that have gone nowhere. "I hope we will have some traction."

A lot remains unclear about how the standards would unfold in California, if they are allowed to proceed, and in other states that adopt them. But the California standards would require manufacturers to make vehicles with more efficient engines that would spew less pollution. And adopting them would probably alter the mix of vehicles sold to include more small fuel-efficient cars and alternative-fuel vehicles.

For decades, California has been at the forefront of requiring improvements to reduce automobile pollution, requiring such modifications as catalytic converters before the nation as a whole.

"California sets the standard and then EPA catches up with that three or four years later," said David Bookbinder, chief climate counsel for the Sierra Club in Washington. "That is what has been going on for 40 years."

Federal environmental regulators announced last week that they will reconsider a request by California and 13 other states to control greenhouse gases from motor vehicles. That may kick-start debates in other states about which is preferable, the so-called federal CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standard or the more stringent California standard.

The Obama administration plans to set new federal standards for 2011 model-year autos as part of a 2007 law to require new cars and trucks to achieve 35 miles per gallon by 2020, a 40 percent increase. The California standard would yield an estimated fuel economy of 43 miles per gallon by 2020.

An analysis by the N.C. Division of Air Quality suggests that the California rules would be more effective at reducing greenhouse gases than the federal CAFE program. The agency estimates that adopting the California standards instead of the federal standards would reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the state by 40 percent between 2009 and 2020.

"Emissions is not something people talk about when they go buy a car," said Anne Tazewell, transportation program manager at the N.C. Solar Center at N.C. State University. "It's a big issue. Vehicles are a major source of our urban air quality problems."

Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency denied California's request for more stringent standards than the federal rules. But President Barack Obama has told the EPA to reconsider, and a June decision is expected.

Robert Glaser, president of the N.C. Automobile Dealers Association, said the group supports one nationwide standard so that car manufacturers don't face the expense of having to produce different cars for different markets.

Glaser said adopting the California standard would increase the price of a car by an estimated $1,200.

The Washington-based Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers also supports a national fuel standard.

Charlie Territo, a spokesman for the Alliance, said the California standard would create a bureaucratic nightmare and send car buyers across state lines in search of better deals.

"North Carolina would be on an island," Territo said. "None of the states contiguous to North Carolina have adopted the standard. Dealers in surrounding states would still be allowed to sell consumers vehicles that dealers in North Carolina may or may not be allowed to sell."

Environment North Carolina said the standards would cut gasoline consumption in North Carolina by 4.5 billion gallons by 2020, saving North Carolinians $8 billion at the pump.

"Lawmakers had been hesitant to move forward because of the roadblock put in place by the courts and Bush administration," said Margaret Hartzell of Environment North Carolina. "That road is now clear. This is a great opportunity to put a down payment on reducing global warming pollution in North Carolina.