BIG change is in the air for United States carmakers and car buyers.
For months, the auto industry and environmentalists have haggled over an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ruling due last Thursday on cleaner, costlier cars of the 21st century. The decision on a low-emission-vehicle plan was to pertain only to the polluted Northeast. But now, amid heated pressure from both sides, proposal upon counterproposal, and hundreds of written public comments, it seems the ruling will be national and delayed by a few weeks.
The plan is especially key to the Northeast because it will bring states in that region into compliance with federal air-quality standards. This will enable the states to continue collecting millions of dollars in federal public-works funds and save thousands of jobs. But it also has wide-ranging implications for the US automobile industry as a whole and electric vehicles, in particular.
Robert Brenner, the EPA's air-policy director, says his agency hopes to come up with a ``49 state'' plan (excluding California), with a backup plan for the Northeast if carmakers renege on the main program.
``A 49-state plan makes sense because a lot of cars [in the Northeast] were bought someplace else,'' he says. ``So even if someone moves to the Northeast with a car from Iowa, it's the same clean car.''
Though details remain incomplete for the 49-state plan, the backup program is spelled out in a petition submitted by the Ozone Transport Commission (OTC), comprised of officials from northeastern states and the District of Columbia.
The OTC petition calls for the ``California Low Emission Vehicle'' program, minus its electric-vehicle mandate, to be extended to the Northeast starting in 1999. The plan lays out progressively stricter emission standards. OTC backers include environmentalists, utilities, and the American Lung Association.