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Promoting Greener Automobiles

Tough Emissions Standards, Tax Break for Fuel Efficiency Needed Laws

Michael J. Ring

In between his Florida vacation in the middle of a budget crisis and the revolving door of scandal and hackarama in Beacon Hill’s Corner Office, Gover-nor Paul Cellucci has managed to do one thing right this month.

New Massachusetts state environmental regulations will soon require that all new sport utility vehicles, light trucks, and minivans sold in this state meet tough emissions requirements. Massachusetts will adopt the California standard for these vehicles, the toughest limits in the nation, beginning in 2004.

The new regulations are easily justifiable. SUVs, minivans, and pickups were not initially included under many anti-smog regulations because they were seen as commercial vehicles with limited appeal. But vehicles such as SUVs and minivans are no longer rarities on the highway. There are 68 million of these vehicles on America’s roads, and the sport utility vehicle and its cousins account for about half of all new car sales in the United States. The effectiveness of tough emissions regulations on passenger cars are undercut when one of two new vehicles produced can drive right through the SUV loophole.

There are those in our society who feel it is their birthright to idle in traffic in four-wheel-drive luxury, clean air be damned. Surely they are going to whine and pout at the new regulations. But the new emissions standards will add only a few hundred dollars to the cost of a sport utility vehicle -- a drop in the bucket when SUVs already bear a $30,000 sticker. These new environmental regulations are most certainly cost effective. And given the abysmal air quality experienced in a number of cities, including this one, throughout the summer heat wave, any regulation that will cut airborne pollutants is welcome indeed.

Over the last generation our nation has made great strides in reducing tailpipe emissions from automobiles. Tailpipe ozone emissions, for example, are down over 90 percent in the past several decades, and the levels of other pollutants have shown similar declines. Governor Cellucci’s order will insure this progress is not destroyed by allowing exceptions to a broad range of passenger vehicles, and all other states should adopt the California emissions standard as well.

But even with these new regulations, sport utility vehicles will not be the environment’s best friend. Although they will be cleaner, they will still belch their share of pollution into the atmosphere. Every gallon of gasoline burned produces about 26 pounds of carbon dioxide. And given that your typical SUV may average 10 or 12 miles to the gallon, the trendy vehicles are models of inefficiency and engines of pollution.

A bill offered in the Massachusetts Senate by Senator David Magnani, D-Framingham, offers an innovative and intriguing solution to promote the use of environmentally-friendly automobiles. His proposal uses the state’s sales tax to encourage the purchase of more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Currently, all new vehicles bought in Massachusetts are taxed at the rate of five percent. Magnani’s bill would replace this flat percentage with a sliding scale based upon the fuel efficiency of the vehicle purchased. A consumer buying a fuel-efficient vehicle could pay as little as zero sales tax under his proposal. Those choosing the dirtiest gas guzzlers, however, would be slapped with a 10 percent surcharge -- double the current tax rate in the state.

Magnani’s bill is a creative way to promote environmental responsibility in the purchase of a new automobile. His proposal, for example, would cut the price of a fuel-efficient, $15,000 car by up to $750. Those are big savings which will encourage consumers to choose cleaner and efficient (and, under the proposal, more affordable) automobiles over gas-guzzling abominations. These savings will also encourage experimentation with non-polluting vehicles such as solar-powered automobiles, which need further research and design before they are cost-competitive with their gasoline-powered cousins. As Magnani says, his bill reflects the important value that “personal responsibility, especially when it affects other people, is something that public policy should support.”

Unfortunately, the chances of his bill’s passage are slim to none. Those hacks circling in and out through the revolving door view a gargantuan, ostentatious sport utility vehicle as a status symbol.

Promoting the use of fuel-efficient automobiles is only one of several strategies needed to reduce air pollution. Dirty factories and power plants, particularly in Midwestern and Southern states with lax air quality regulations, are also prime culprits and must be forced to clean their ways. However, the vehicles crowding our nation’s highways also share a major portion of the fault for our air pollution woes. It’s time to encourage cleanliness and efficiency as important values in automobile production and purchases. Governor Cellucci’s new regulation and Senator Magnani’s bill are two excellent means of accomplishing this goal.