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Clean Air Showdown Taking Shape in House : Environment: Floor debate is expected to focus on unresolved issues. One is whether to require auto makers to build 1 million alternative fuel cars.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Clean air activists hit Capitol Hill last week, showering congressmen with more than 200,000 post cards from environmentally concerned constituents across the country. Not to be outdone, industry lobbyists ambushed lawmakers wherever they could find them--in the halls, in their offices, even in the elevators.

“The lobbying is more intense than ever before,” said Daniel Weiss, an environmentalist with the Sierra Club. “The industry people are carpet bombing the place.”

There is good reason for the lobbying showdown: This week is high noon for the clean air debate.

After a decade of legislative deadlock, the House finally stands poised to pass a new Clean Air Act. The Senate passed its version of the sweeping new law last month. That bill, the result of marathon negotiations between the White House and Senate leaders, evolved into a complex compromise that pleased neither American industry, which called it too tough, nor environmentalists, who called it too weak.

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Now the House is taking its turn, and the outcome will largely determine the final shape of a law whose impact will extend well into the 21st Century and be felt more directly by more Americans than any other piece of legislation likely to be passed this year.

Both big business and environmentalists are hoping that the House will correct some of what each sees as serious flaws in the Senate bill.

But what the environmentalists consider industry loopholes are seen by big business as regulatory nooses likely to drive up costs and choke the competitiveness out of American industry. This view is particularly shared by the steel, oil and automotive industries.

Auto manufacturers, for instance, say that the cost of meeting stringent new tailpipe standards will add at least $500 to the price of a new car while contributing very little toward reducing air pollution. Overall, according to industry representatives, the broad range of clean air regulations in both bills could cost U.S. businesses more than $40 billion per year--twice what the Bush Administration estimates.

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“It’s hard to know what the precise costs will be, but I do know that the estimates put out by the auto industry are gross exaggerations,” countered Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), the chief architect of the legislation now before the House. “Over the past two decades, the auto industry has developed a pattern of making claims that are just not borne out. They’ve lost their credibility.”

Major votes are expected to start Wednesday with final action by the end of the week. But passage of the House bill won’t necessarily end the fight. What could be a long and bruising conference battle still lies ahead. Whether the bill is strengthened or weakened in the House-Senate conference later this year now depends, to a large degree, on what comes out of the House.

The debate is expected to proceed swiftly because the broad parameters of the bill have already been locked into place by a series of binding agreements negotiated over the last several months by Waxman and his clean air nemesis in the House, Energy Committee Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.).

Long a champion of the auto industry, Dingell for years had stymied Waxman’s efforts to get stronger clean air legislation through the Energy Committee. But with both public opinion and the White House pushing for a clean air bill this year, Dingell agreed to cut deals with Waxman to keep what might have been even tougher legislation from reaching the floor.

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Thus what would have been the most contentious issues--controls on mobile and stationary sources of smog, toxic chemicals and acid rain--were resolved in back room deals, much as was done in the Senate.

Major floor fights still loom, however, over several issues unresolved by the committee.

Tim McCarthy, a lobbyist with the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Assn., said that the industry is uniting to oppose what he calls “a perfectly awful” amendment offered by Waxman and Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands). It would encourage the development of non-polluting alternative fuels by mandating the annual production of 1 million clean-fuel vehicles for sale in Los Angeles and the nation’s next eight most-polluted cities.

Similar to a proposal narrowly defeated in the Senate, the amendment restores an alternative fuels program first proposed by the White House but later scuttled with Administration help after Waxman succeeded in toughening the bill’s tailpipe standards in committee.

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The auto industry maintains that there is no guarantee consumers will buy clean-fuel vehicles and argues that mandating their production will, in McCarthy’s words, “not enhance the alternative fuels program but kill it.”

Waxman and other advocates of clean fuel argue that alternative fuels technology offers one of the most promising and cost-effective ways of reducing pollution.

“It’s essential to put clean-fueled cars on the road if we’re ever going to clean up areas with heavy pollution like Los Angeles, New York and Houston,” Waxman said.


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