Our Man in Washington: Auto Emissions and Recycling Policy Controversy

The controversy surrounding an Environmental Protection Agency decision in 1973 giving U.S. automakers an additional year to meet auto emissions standards and the suppression of recycling policy recommendations are the subjects of this commentary.

auto emissions - Fotolia

The implementation of auto emissions standards had some early hiccups, but extravagant plumes of exhaust from cars have become much less common since.


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When former EPA Administrator Bill Ruckelshaus recently granted the U.S. auto industry an extra year to meet the 1975 deadline for rigid exhaust-emission standards, he received the decision-maker's traditional award . . . severe criticism from all sides.

General Motors Chairman Richard Gerstenberg was "disappointed and dismayed" by Ruckelshaus' interim national guidelines and special standards for California. Ralph Nader, meanwhile, called the ruling "capitulation to the domestic auto industry, plain and simple" because Ruckelshaus compromised at all.

The fact remains that no one knows the best approach to auto emission controls . . . not EPA, not Detroit, not Congress, not even Ralph Nader. All the sound and fury from Detroit has centered on the installation of controversial, imperfect, delicate devices known as catalytic converters. Usually made out of costly platinum or palladium, these gadgets burn up pollutants on their way to the exhaust pipe. Specifically, the devices are designed either to oxidize hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide into harmless water vapor and carbon dioxide, or to reduce nitrogen oxides into nitrogen and oxygen.

Trouble is, these contrivances are complicated and expensive. A typical Detroit dual-catalyst system includes—in addition to the converter itself—[1] an improved carburetor and choke to provide a better air-fuel mixture; [2] a quick-heat intake manifold to promote rapid fuel evaporation; [3] an electronic ignition to eliminate distributor problems, [4] an exhaust gas recirculation line to send some of the exhaust back through the engine and [5] an improved air pump.

Even with the one-year extension, Detroit insists it still must rely on the catalytic converters to do the job of virtually eliminating dangerous exhaust fumes. The 1970 Clean Air Act calls for carbon monoxides and hydrocarbons to be reduced 90 percent by model year 1975 and nitrogen oxides to be cut 90 percent by 1976.

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, the automobile lobbyists are citing Ruckelshaus' one-year extension as reason for further weakening of the 1970 law. The forced installation of the converters, says Detroit, will lead to "environmental overkill". The devices will fall apart on the assembly line. Plants will close; jobs will be lost.

This apocalyptic vision, however, neatly overlooks two points. First, exhaust emissions are a serious health hazard and cars are responsible for up to 80 percent of the air pollution in some cities. Second, meeting the 1970 standards may actually be less difficult than Detroit contends. After all, three foreign cars-Mazda, Honda, and Mercedes-Benz—already have met the original 1975 standards for carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons. And they did it without catalytic converters:

Honda uses a stratified-charge engine. On the top of each cylinder a small additional combustion chamber is attached into which a rich air-fuel mixture is fed and ignited. Burning then spreads to the leaner mixture in the main chamber, combustion is prolonged and most pollutants are consumed inside the engine.

Mazda employs its now well-known rotary (Wankel) engine with a thermal reactor. Rotaries are inherently dirtier than standard engines, but they're also smaller. This leaves plenty of room under the hood for a reactor... a kind of oven in which exhaust is mixed with air and burned again at high temperature.

The Mercedes-Benz diesel burns fuel more completely than an "ordinary" powerplant and produces very low carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon emissions (although nitrogen oxides still present a problem).

Despite these examples, many experts are urging Detroit to abandon the internal combustion engine entirely and find a practical, non-polluting substitute. Steam and electric autos are the objects of considerable research and promising steam vehicles have been developed . . . but the electric car still have power and battery problems. Gas turbines and alternate fuels—such as natural gas, propane and hydrogen—also are receiving attention.

Meanwhile, 40 percent of all American households already own two or more vehicles and 1973 promises to be the biggest sales year in Detroit history. Not air pollution, not traffic snarls, not gas rationing, not even inflation can keep the average American out of the booming automobile market.

OMB & Recycling

President Nixon's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has quietly eliminated an entire division at EPA, apparently because of its strident efforts to champion "recycling" in cities and industries.

The EPA division, responsible for resource recovery programs, completed an 80-page report more than a year ago calling on the Federal Government to give recycling a chance in the marketplace. Researchers complained that industries engaging in activities like strip mining, oil drilling, and the cutting of forest enjoy huge tax breaks that encourage them to exploit more and more irreplaceable natural resources. In contrast, cities have not been given corresponding tax incentives to use trash as a fuel supplement to generate electricity or to recycle waste in any other way.

The EPA researchers also urged that manufacturers be taxed for polluting two "free" resources . . . air and water. The agency has found that nearly all manufacturing processes using "virgin" materials pollute more than processes using recycled materials. If manufacturers were made to pay for their pollution, reasoned the EPA, then a strong new market for recycling goods would be stimulated.

The Environmental Protection Agency undertook the study after Congress ordered it to find out how the U.S. could more effectively use its limited resources . . . but the completed report sat over at OMB for nearly a year. When the paper was finally released, EPA's tough talk on recycling had turned to mush. Since then, the jobs of those who conducted the study have been eliminated.