State air quality officials are offering to drop the mandate for mass production of zero-emission cars until 2003 or 2004 and instead ask auto makers to voluntarily manufacture only a few thousand electric vehicles before then.
The changes, if adopted by the Air Resources Board, would be a big retreat from a landmark state regulation that requires that 2% of all cars for sale in California in 1998--about 20,000--have no tailpipe emissions.
That mandate increases to 5% in 2001 and 10% in 2003.
The Wilson administration has been under intense pressure from the auto and oil industries and Republican legislators to rescind the mandate, which was adopted by the state air board five years ago as a key to the effort to clean up smog.
On Wednesday the ARB staff outlined three proposed revisions they are considering--one from the California Chamber of Commerce, one roughly modeled on auto company proposals and another from environmentalists. Air board officials have not publicly stated a preference.
An internal document obtained by The Times, however, shows that the air board staff has already agreed to grant significant concessions to the auto industry. According to the document, production of electric cars would be mostly voluntary through 2003, perhaps 2004, when the 10% requirement would go into effect.
In the ARB staff's notes, which were used in negotiations with the auto companies, the staff said it was willing to accept voluntary "commitments" from the companies to produce 750 cars equipped with advanced battery technology in 1998, and 1,500 in each of the following two years. That is a fraction of the about 60,000 zero-emission cars required during the initial three years under the existing mandate.
ARB spokesman Jerry Martin called the figures for voluntary production "in the ballpark, more or less a minimum" that the staff has found acceptable.
James Boyd, the air board's executive officer, stressed Wednesday that no deal has been struck. He said a specific proposal from the staff is expected to be presented to the board Dec. 14 with a board vote in February or March.
"We have not agreed to anything yet," Boyd said. "We've not finalized numbers. We're still dancing [with the auto companies]. The dancing is over what kind of numbers they're offering in total. . . . Their offers to date have not been satisfactory."
Boyd said, however, that the existing requirements must be overhauled because car makers will not be able to produce adequate numbers of high-quality cars to comply with the regulation between 1998 and 2000.
"You can't do 20,000 vehicles [per year]," Boyd said. "You'll kill the program that way. They'll give us the worst [cars] they've got."
Environmentalists lambasted the board staff and board Chairman John Dunlap for negotiating with the auto makers in secret and refusing to divulge specific numbers offered by both sides.
Ed Maschke, executive director of the California Public Interest Research Group, said the air board's apparent new stance "stinks. It guts the mandate."
"Flexibility is one thing," added Roland Hwang of the Union of Concerned Scientists, "but they are bending over backwards for the auto industry."
Environmentalists, electric power companies and other proponents of the mandate say a few thousand cars in a state as large as California amounts to nothing more than a demonstration project that will not make cars available in showrooms for mass consumption.
In private talks with the ARB, major auto companies have said they are capable of producing 5,000 cars by 1997 and 14,000 per year beginning in 1998. But under the ARB's latest stance, those numbers would be voluntary, according to the ARB documents.
Some companies, however, would sign memorandums of understanding promising to reach production capacity of 2,000 cars equipped with advanced battery technology by 2000.
The commitment to advanced batteries--such as those that use nickel metal-hydride instead of traditional lead-acid technology--is a critical step in the advancement of electric cars since they will provide a mileage range equivalent to that of gasoline-powered cars.
Sam Leonard, director of auto emissions control for General Motors, said the companies' offers to produce a few thousand cars with advanced batteries by 2000 is a major concession.
"Production capacity is not something to be taken lightly," he said. "That means we certify a vehicle, we enter into contracts for the parts, we have the assembly line ready to go. It's a very, very big investment."
The companies have insisted on keeping production numbers voluntary because they contend that the technology is not yet advanced enough or cheap enough to meet consumers' needs.