Drive for Cleaner Autos Running Into Obstacles


When a new clean air plan was adopted last year to rid the Los Angeles Basin of health-threatening smog levels within a generation, authorities were counting on millions of cars powered by clean-burning fuels to help make it work.

Methanol-powered cars, they said, were just around the corner, and "ultra-clean" vehicles propelled by even cleaner fuels weren't far behind.

Now, nearly a year later, car showrooms clearly are not brimming with alternative-fuel cars. Still, air pollution officials insist that they are on track and that, despite setbacks in Congress and challenges by industry, four out of every 10 cars on the road will run on cleaner fuels by the year 2000.

In one sense, prospects have never seemed brighter. General Motors has unveiled the prototype of a futuristic electric car that accelerates from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in eight seconds and has a range of 124 miles between recharges.

Last week PG&E; opened the state's first public refueling station for vehicles that run on compressed natural gas--by far the cleanest of fossil fuels. And Arco last September began marketing a reformulated gasoline, called EC-1, for pre-1975 cars that cuts their tailpipe emissions by 20%.

At the same time, the state Air Resources Board is poised to require automobile companies beginning in 1994 to begin selling a new category of "low emitting" vehicles that are twice as clean as the cleanest new gasoline cars on the road.

But there are obstacles on the road.

GM has no target date for actually mass producing its electric car. Given existing battery technology, it would cost twice as much to operate as a gasoline car. And there are a relative handful of vehicles that run on natural gas.

Moreover, while state government appears determined to charge ahead with ever more stringent tailpipe standards that will eventually force gasoline and diesel vehicles off the road, Congress is putting on the brakes.

After a fast start by the Bush Administration in calling for the production of a million alternative fuel cars a year by 1997, Senate negotiators--with White House acquiescence--have all but scrapped the proposal.

Where do these conflicting signals leave California? Will new generations of super-clean vehicles really be on the road soon enough for the Los Angeles Basin to meet federal clean air health standards in the 17 years that are left before a 2007 deadline?

Although the Senate compromise drew fire from environmentalists, some members of Congress and air pollution authorities, it is not viewed as a major setback even if it remains intact.

Regardless of what happens in Washington, California authorities say there is no turning back in the drive toward a new generation of cleaner cars. Federal backsliding, they said, will make the effort more difficult but not impossible.

"We can do a lot without the Feds, but it's going to impact our ability to get ahead," said James M. Lents, executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

The struggle over cleaner cars comes at a time when major oil companies--recognizing that alternative fuels such as methanol could eventually push gasoline out of much of the market--are developing reformulated gasolines that burn cleaner than conventional gasoline. Arco's EC-1 is but the first in a line of cleaner gasolines expected to be developed by oil companies.

Although reformulated gasoline will likely provide immediate clean air benefits, it is also a reason why auto makers are urging a go-slow approach in mass-producing cars that run on alternative fuels like methanol. They are especially concerned about consumer acceptance of a new line of vehicles.

"It isn't fun taking a chance in the auto industry, because if you make a mistake you lose big. Just ask Ford when they produced the Edsel. It was a good car but nobody would buy it," said Tim MacCarthy, federal liaison director of the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Assn. in Washington.

At the same time, at least one major public policy research group, the World Resources Institute, is warning that methanol is not the way to go.

The institute said methanol would fail to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign energy resources (because they said it would be made with cheap natural gas from OPEC countries) and would make a minimal contribution to clean air. It also said the drive toward methanol would divert scarce research and development dollars from more promising cleaner alternatives, such as hydrogen-powered vehicles.

California officials say they can't wait. Action is required now. They said methanol is the next logical step beyond reformulated gasoline, while not ruling out any fuel that can meet or beat it.

They point to differences in emission characteristics between methanol and Arco's EC-1.

Although EC-1 would reduce smog-causing volatile organic compounds by 20%, a blended methanol fuel would cut those same emissions by 30%, compared to typical future gasoline cars. If the fuel was 100% methanol instead of blending it with 15% gasoline, the vehicles would emit 80% less VOC than future gasoline vehicles, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

No one denies the immediate air quality benefits of reformulated gasoline. Its strong point is that it could be used in every gasoline car on the road today.

Although those gasoline cars are individually dirtier than, say, a car running on a methanol blend, there are more of them.

Thus, said Lents, the overall air quality improvement from cleaning up great numbers of gasoline cars compared to a limited number of cleaner methanol cars would be about the same.

"We could virtually achieve an equivalent overall reduction," Lents said.

But Lents said reformulated gasoline should not become an excuse for going no further.

"I don't want people to have outs. The system always has outs," Lents complained. "We've got to keep the pressure on."

Although policy makers are careful not to exclude any fuel from consideration in the future, methanol is the near-term fuel of choice.

It has a track record. About 1,000 cars running on pure methanol and 40 cars that can run on a blend of methanol and gasoline are operating in California. Another 1,000 are expected to be on the road by the year's end.

The Southern California Rapid Transit District has placed 31 methanol buses in service to test their performance and durability. Indianapolis 500 race cars have long run on the fuel.

Moreover, methanol as a liquid fuel can be phased into the existing transportation infrastructure that is geared to liquid fuels--gasoline and diesel--more easily than alternative fuels like natural gas or electric batteries.

More importantly, major foreign and domestic auto makers are working on so-called flexible fuel cars that can run on either gasoline or methanol or any blend of the two, thanks to advances in computer technology.

Methanol poses problems as well. It is corrosive and some engine parts would have to be made of stainless steel. Methanol gets about half the mileage of gasoline. Methanol emits more formaldehyde--a known cancer-causing agent.

None of these and other problems, however, are insurmountable, state officials say. Although methanol offers poorer mileage, the per gallon cost of methanol would be less than premium gasoline. Moreover, the state maintains that formaldehyde emissions can be reduced by development of a catalytic converter.

There are, of course, political as well as technological problems.

Congress appears to be putting on the brakes. A compromise ironed out last week between Senate negotiators and the White House all but foreclosed federal requirements on auto makers to produce cars that run on methanol or other alternative fuels.

Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), who authored legislation establishing the South Coast Air Quality Management District as a member of the state Assembly in 1976, said that unless car makers are required to build alternative-fuel cars, "an important first battle" will have been lost.

"It would delay the time in which we would make the next significant step in the direction of seeing our mountains. It will impact the speed with which we move toward cleaner air," Lewis said.

But California officials appear undaunted.

"If Congress doesn't do it we still have full authority in California," said California Energy Commission chairman Charles R. Imbrecht.

Next September, the state Air Resources Board plans to vote on far-reaching tailpipe standards that will all but require a massive shift from gasoline cars, barring some breakthrough that would dramatically clean up the fuel beyond the current and contemplated reformulated versions.

If the board follows through, one out of every four cars sold in the state beginning in 1997 would have to emit 70% less smog-forming hydrocarbons than will come from the tailpipes of new gasoline cars in 1994.

By the year 2010, board staff estimated, two-thirds of gasoline use in California would be displaced by the cleaner fuels.

Auto makers would have to build the cars--and oil companies would have to provide the fuel--as a condition of doing business in the state.

There is little doubt that California has the clout to impose such requirements. The federal government has given the state authority to exceed federal tailpipe standards, and California is a big market. One out of every 10 new cars sold in the United States is registered in California.

Other states like New York are following the state's example.

"If I was an air quality administrator in California I would beat my breast in pride that other states are nationalizing the California program," said MacCarthy of the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Assn.

That may be too sweeping a claim for California to make at this point, especially since Senate negotiators don't appear to be going nearly as far as California would like.

How the clean fuels issue will ultimately resolve itself is as murky as the skies over Los Angeles.

What is clear, however, is that political pressure continues to build for ever cleaner cars. The only question is how soon they will be on the road and what will be in their tanks.

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