Gov. Angus King on Friday decided that Mainers in the year 2001 will begin buying cars that pollute less than those sold in most other states when he opted out of a national program that would have locked the state into emissions standards that could not change until 2006.
King’s decision means that the state will require new cars sold in Maine to comply with rigorous California standards that regulate automobile emissions. The California standards are expected to add $150 to the price tag of a new car, while the national standards would add approximately $75.
A move toward requiring cleaner cars in Maine has been in the works for years. Maine is part of a consortium of Northeastern states that agreed to require some form of low-emissions vehicles as part of a move to clean air here and push for tougher standards in upwind states that send their pollution toward the Atlantic Ocean. The Legislature twice has approved laws that move the state toward the California standards, the most recent of which came last year.
The issue that King resolved Friday turned on efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency to put together a voluntary national low-emission vehicles program, or NLEV.
Because of limits written into the latest amendments to the federal Clean Air Act, the EPA cannot tighten restrictions on car emissions for years. By working with car manufacturers and states, EPA officials hoped to get cleaner air through the voluntary effort than it could otherwise.
Maine was a key player in developing those rules, although state officials last week said car makers had placed so many unrealistic restrictions on the process that the process had been effectively subverted. EPA officials for their part pushed Maine hard to support the national standards, intimating that the NLEV program would flop without Maine’s participation.
Ned Sullivan, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, said, “The fate of NLEV will not turn on Maine.”
Friday was the deadline for the 12 Northeastern states to decide whether to go with the California program or EPA’s national one. Maine and three other states — New York, Massachusetts and Vermont — chose the more stringent California standards.
“Maine needs a clean air plan that’s right for Maine,” King said in a press release. “There’s no question that, for some states, the EPA program is a step forward. But Maine is already a leader in working to reduce air pollution and I intend to keep it that way.”
What that means for the EPA program is still unclear.
“That’s really up to the auto industry, not us,” said Richard Wilson, EPA’s acting assistant administrator for air and radiation. “What the auto industry said was if all the states in the Northeast would agree to this program, then they’d sell these cleaner cars nationwide. Now, several states are saying they’re not going to do it. The question is now, will they still voluntarily sell those cleaner cars?”
If the program falters, Wilson said, Maine will end up with worse air quality as visitors bring more polluting cars and winds bring more polluted air from other states.
But Sullivan rejected any implication that Maine’s decision would undermine the NLEV program.
“If the car companies [back out of NLEV amd] blame 50,000 cars from Maine, they’re just looking for excuses not to do the program,” Sullivan said. “[EPA administrator] Carol Browner called the governor, and he really seriously weighed what she said, and he specifically directed me not to try to influence other states and not to do anything that would undermine the national LEV program. Once he evaluated the environmental benefits of the cleaner vehicles, he decided that going with the cleanest cars for Maine was the best decision.”
Maine’s decision turned on several factors, including getting the least-polluting cars here and not getting locked into standards that couldn’t be improved until 2006. Going with the California standards also will enable Maine car dealers to continue trading vehicles with their counterparts in Massachusetts — which already has adopted the California program.
Another consideration was that the national program covered fewer of the popular — and polluting — sport utility vehicles and trucks.
“I mean, holy cow, that’s a major, major issue that their plan doesn’t address,” said Dennis Bailey, a spokesman for the governor.
Originally exempted from the Clean Air Act because they were considered farm equipment, heavy trucks and Jeep-like vehicles have become the hottest things on the market in cities and suburbs around the country.
“Some people are using them now to go on safari to Green Mountain Coffee,” Bailey said.
Environmentalists lauded King’s decision.
“Today, the governor made an excellent decision to support clean air in Maine in the face of heavy pressure from an EPA that was trying to please the big car makers with a weaker program,” said Pete Didisheim, advocacy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.