Unsafe At Any Speed

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Hotline, Spring 1999

GASP held a press conference on March 17, 1999 to comment on the draft tailpipe standards proposed by EPA in conjunction with releasing a report done by Pennsylvania Public Interest and Research Group titled “Dirty Cars, Dirty Air: How Cleaner Sport Utility Vehicles Could Help Us All Breathe Easier.”

Sales of sport utility vehicles have grown tenfold since 1980, with more than 2.8 million of these new SUVs hitting the roads in the U.S. in 1998. Originally designed as a work vehicle, the SUVs have become popular family and urban cars complete with luxury interiors and high tech accessories, carrying loads no more extensive than the family groceries. The transition to passenger car, however, is unfinished be cause unknown to many owners, these stylish vehicles along with light trucks continue to create smog forming pollution at higher levels than passenger cars, as much as three times higher for the full sized SUVs and trucks and use about 33% more gas per mile driven than the average car.2

Why? Because up until the last 15 years or so, the SUVs and lighter trucks were permitted higher emissions since they were usually hauling heavier loads than passenger cars. The heavier loads made lower emissions more difficult to achieve. The heavier the SUV or truck, the higher the permitted emissions such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), a precursor to smog forming ozone. Unfortunately, this SUV and light truck loop hole still exists.

The unveiling of the new Ford Excursion or Ford “Valdez” as it might be called since it is approaching boat dimensions (19 feet, 8600 lbs. transportation weight), is a loophole example. Is there really a market for such beasts? The car manufacturers think so, and have mounted aggressive marketing campaigns for these larger SUVs. For example, a newspaper ad for the Cadillac Escalade, another “full sized” SUV warns: “Yield, Please move immediately to the right. You might as well give in now.”! These vehicles are highly profitable. For example, the Ford Excursion, due in showrooms in the fall of ’99, will bring in a profit of $12,000 – $20,000 per vehicle at a sticker price of $45,000 to $50,000.1

Though the automobile industry has spent millions in the past lobbying against stricter auto emission controls, it appears it may be succumbing to the growing logic that consumers want cleaner cars and the technology is available for a modest price. The driving force could also be competition from some auto manufacturers that have stepped up to the plate and introduced cleaner cars for sale. In a recent poll by the American Lung Association, 91% of people said that sport utility vehicles and minivans should be required to meet the same emission standards as passenger cars. Even 87% of SUV owners and 92% of minivan owners agree these vehicles should meet the same standards as passenger automobiles.

Agreeing with the public and following an air quality evaluation mandated by the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency submitted a draft recommendation concerning new tailpipe emission standards (TIER II) to the Office of Management and Budget. According to early reports of the draft rule, it proposes the following:4

  1. Passenger cars, including smaller SUVs, would be required to, on average, emit 89% less NOx (precursor to smog) than the typical car sold in the U.S. now. Manufacturers are already making cars that can meet these tougher standards; the new standards would be phased in between 2004 and 2007.
  2. Lighter SUVs, minivans, and trucks up to 6000 lbs. will be held to the same emission standards and phase-in periods as passenger cars. The cost is projected to add a modest $200 to an SUV’s sticker price.3 One wrinkle to the EPA’s proposal includes a two year delay for larger SUVs and light trucks (those between 6000 and 8500 pounds fully loaded) to join the program. Moreover, EPA does not propose to tighten standards for the largest and dirtiest vehicles that can no longer be called light trucks, those vehicles over 8500 lbs.
  3. Additionally, the EPA is expected to propose new standards for gasoline sold in the U.S., reducing sulfur emissions by 90%. The EPA claims this would add as little as 2 cents per gallon at the pump. Under court order, EPA must finalize new emission standards, to become effective in 2004.

Leading the way, California has already adopted these standards, and Japan, the European Union, and Canada have followed suit by requiring sulfur reductions in fuel. But blocking the road, we can expect the oil and auto industry to argue that most of the reductions should come on the other’s back, not their own.

What is missing from this proposal?

  • Certainly, reduced emission requirements for larger vehicles (over 8500 lbs.) which includes the largest SUVs at gross vehicle weight. California has included this category of vehicle in their reduction program. The EPA should follow suit.
  • There should be no delay for the mid-sized SUVs (6000-8500 lbs.) to reduce emissions to the passenger car standard.
  • EPA should require diesel engines to meet the same tough new standards as gasoline engines. Diesel engines emit 3-10 times more particulate pollution than gasoline powered engines (many studies have associated health problems with high particulate levels).
  • CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards (the provision setting miles/gallon) for automobiles were set in the 1980’s, thus lagging behind 1999 available improvements in technology. In 1996, an anti-environmental rider was added to a Transportation Appropriations Bill by the House of Representatives, freezing CAFE standards. The House has continued to insert this “CAFE Freeze” rider for the last four years. Stripping this freeze would allow stronger CAFE standards forcing better fuel efficiency.

America has a great opportunity to clear the air through stronger tail pipe standards. We urge citizen participation in the public comment period, which should start in April. Let the EPA know how you feel.

by Suzanne Seppi, GASP Executive Director

  1. Chicago Sun-Times, February 26, 1999: “Ford’s Latest Muscles into Competition”
  2. U.S. PIRG, March ’99: Big Cars, Dirty Air: How Cleaner Sport Utility Vehicles Could Help Us All Breathe Easier
  3. U.S. News, February 15, 1999: New Rules for Those Fun Trucks
  4. U.S. PIRG, March ’99: Big Cars, Dirty Air: How Cleaner Sport Utility Vehicles Could Help Us All Breathe Easier