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Staying a Step Ahead

One way people around Los Angeles gauge air quality at a glance is by the shroud of smog that hides the San Gabriel Mountains. The veil is lifted on more days every year as air pollution controls are tightened, but it still blots out the mountains far too often. That the shroud falls away at all is a legacy of pioneering efforts of the 1960s to put pollution controls on automobiles.

Last week’s state Air Resources Board decision to force cleaner tailpipes on cars, trucks and buses is the most far-reaching development in air quality control since those pioneering days.

For the most part, the new regulations are incremental steps in a long campaign to develop better control devices. Automobile engines will have to burn cleaner under a rule that will substantially cut nitrogen oxide--a key ingredient of smog. Long-haul diesel trucks and buses must have pollution controls that will cut diesel smoke 50% by 1994.

But one new regulation may lead not just to another turning of the screw, but to a movement away from fuels that require more and more elaborate technology to trap pollution to a fuel that burns so completely and leaves so little residue that it requires hardly any controls at all.

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Many air pollution specialists think that methanol, the cleanest-burning fuel presently known to man, is the best hope Los Angeles has of continuing to grow and still being able to see where it is growing. And the Southern California Rapid Transit District thinks that the board’s new regulations tilt toward a new methanol-burning bus engine that will take over the old diesel’s dirty work and still perform with the same heavy-duty reliability. The air board thinks that devices to trap soot from conventional diesels can be perfected between now and the board-imposed deadline of 1991, three years before long-haul trucks must meet the same standard. The transit district has doubts. And if the air board is wrong, its rule leads directly to expanded use of methanol.

The technology is not new. In California, several hundred methanol-burning automobiles already operate in fleets of state and local government automobiles, building a performance record. But only a handful of methanol engines are being tested in buses in California and abroad, and there is no useful track record as yet.

The RTD is concerned that devices to trap diesel smoke will not work without increasing fuel consumption and cutting the life of an engine. It is anxious to experiment with the new technology and plans to put 30 methanol-burning buses on its routes in a little more than a year.

There are barriers to a full-scale methanol test. The law requires the RTD to accept the lowest bid when it is buying buses. It needs from the Legislature and Gov. George Deukmejian an exemption for equipment for a test of methanol. The state air board also needs a test facility for methanol bus engines. It should get the facility.

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Thirty buses in a fleet of 2,700 will not keep the San Gabriels in view the year around, even if the new fuel proves in grueling tests to be all it is cracked up to be. It may be that pressure on engineers will work as it did in the 1960s to design pollution controls that now look beyond reach and that a shift to methanol will not be necessary. But the board’s new regulations make a good beginning and they deserve the same support from government and the public that led to the revolt against the automobile industry in the 1960s when Detroit said it couldn’t do anything about smog.


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