Our Man in Washington: Auto Emissions and Recycling Policy Controversy

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

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.