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.

| May/June 1973

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.

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