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May 7, 2004

New England, the California of the East Coast

My gut tells me to dislike this move, but I don't know enough about the standard, the proposal, the science, or the politics to be able to comment with confidence:

Governor Carcieri has announced the adoption of a tough new vehicle emissions standard for new cars sold statewide, with the goal of greatly reducing air pollution.

Adoption of the new standard -- called the California Low Emission or Clean Cars standard -- is expected to spur sales of hybrid vehicles as well as those designed to run on hydrogen fuel cells, electricity or super low emission gasoline.

Auto emissions are considered a major pollutant in the Northeast. More than 30 percent of the total greenhouse-gas emissions in the region come from autos, according to Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, an interstate association of air-quality control divisions. The national average is 22 percent.

Those percentages strike me as potentially misleading. They could be as much proof of less pollution in the Northeast than of more. If most other states have a higher level of greenhouse-gas emissions coming from other sources, their citizens could be driving nothing but 1950s pickup trucks and still have a lower automobile-pollution rate. Furthermore, I've no idea how this is supposed to function in a free marketplace:

Implementation of the standard depends on the formulation of regulations by the Department of Environmental Management.

The new standard requires that 10 percent of all new autos and trucks be zero-emission vehicles, but it does not specify a target date. ...

The standard requires that Rhode Island automakers sell approximately 14,400 hybrid vehicles and more than 78,000 clean conventional cars before 2011, Auten said. Those amounts are adjusted to mimic the ratios of clean cars sold in California. Sales of hybrid and other low-polluting vehicles can be used as credits by auto dealers to meet the 10-percent zero-emissions standard once a target date is implemented, Auten said.

Ignoring the impression that Matt Auten, a "clean air advocate" for the Rhode Island Public Interest Research Group, has given a target date even though none has been set, I have no idea what this will mean in practical terms. Assuming people don't run out and buy hybrid cars (which they won't), what are manufacturers and dealers supposed to do? Three options come quickly to mind:

  1. They can put hybrid engines in types of automobiles (e.g., large SUVs) for which they are not yet adequately developed, thus raising prices.
  2. They can raise the prices of non-compliant automobiles to try to force customers to buy the hybrids and "clean" cars, which could lead consumers to seek out older used cars, instead.
  3. Or they could lower the prices of hybrid/clean cars, perhaps requiring them to raise other prices to compensate.

Given these possibilities, I'd suggest that it would be more appropriate — more in line with individual liberties — for the government to offer incentives directly, for both clean engine development and individual purchases. But Rhode Island has an institutional aversion to giving back any tax dollars, no matter how noble the cause. So, instead, the solution is recourse to the magic legislative pen. We can only hope that it is more powerful in Rhode Island than in California:

The standard was first adopted in California with the mandate that 10 percent of its cars be zero-emission vehicles before 2012. However, auto-dealer associations staunchly opposed the timeline and the new standard was amended without a target date.
Posted by Justin Katz at May 7, 2004 11:29 AM

"Adoption of the new standard -- called the California Low Emission or Clean Cars standard -- is expected to spur sales of hybrid vehicles as well as those designed to run on hydrogen fuel cells, electricity or super low emission gasoline." Does the newspaper provide any info about how the manufacturers of hydrogen fuel cells, electricity, or super-low emission gasoline have backed the standard and lobbied the state government, for financial gain to the industries? No? Why not? If it were a measure tied ideologically to conservatives, wouldn't they do that?

Posted by: ELC at May 7, 2004 1:32 PM

The closest the piece comes is stating that some people are happy about the change:

Sellers of hybrid vehicles welcomed the adoption of the new standard.

"I think this is a great move," said Paul Mika, president of Toyota of Newport. Mika's dealership sells the popular hybrid car Toyota Prius.

Well, duh. Moreover, as you suggest, it makes it sound as if they've just sat on the sidelines waiting until such time as they could benefit from the government's doing "the right thing."

Posted by: Justin Katz at May 7, 2004 11:29 PM