Environment: Smogged Down

Pollution-hating Californians discover there's no free lunch.


One sign read, "U.S.A. not U.S.S.R." Another got more specific: "First you came for our guns, now you come for our cars!" Responding to a rallying cry from San Francisco radio talk-show hosts, an estimated 3,000 Californians showed up on August 22 in Sacramento to protest the state's new smog check program.

The demonstration was the tip of the iceberg. In August, 12,840 callers had deluged the state's hotline with queries about the program. Some feared their cars would be confiscated and scrapped–a fear provoked by talk-show rumors. Some complained about month-long waits to get mandatory retests of cars that had been deemed "gross polluters" by previous smog tests. Others fussed about the price tag of repairs.

Just months after the rollout of its program, California joined the growing list of states to experience public ire about more stringent smog check procedures crafted to satisfy federal Clean Air Act requirements. Some of the brouhaha over the program resulted from simple misunderstanding–the state was not, for example, seizing people's vehicles. Some of it came from the inevitable resentment of any program–however wisely planned and implemented–that would hit people directly in their own pocketbooks. And some of it resulted from procedural problems that left motorists on hold, in lines, or on waiting lists to get their cars tested.

Frustrating though these problems may be for motorists, the program is no mere "boondoggle" or further testament to government excess. It is what happens when the public gets what it says it wants. In poll after poll, Americans say they put a high value on environmental cleanup. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll finds, for instance, that 62 percent of Americans agree that "protection of the environment should be given priority even at the risk of curbing economic growth." Such sentiments run particularly strong in California, where even conservative politicians take care to cultivate a pro-environment image.

But if people really want further improvements in air quality, automobiles–their automobiles–are going to be affected. Cars are among the last targets from which significant additional reductions in air emissions can be wrung. There are, of course, better and worse ways to accomplish this end. But just about no way to accomplish these reductions comes without some pain to someone. There just ain't no free lunch.

Automobiles in general now account for as much as half of total air-pollution emissions in many U.S. cities. But these aggregate figures obscure a critical detail. Only a fraction of cars–around 10 percent–account for more than half of all vehicle emissions of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons. It is these so-called gross polluters that California and other states are trying to target with their new smog check programs. The idea is to identify, through vehicle inspections, those cars that are really dirty and then require that they be repaired to reduce their emissions. It's a politically appealing idea since most motorists think the gross polluter is someone else–the neighbor's car with the plume of black smoke.

Targeting gross polluters sounds like a simple and sensible idea. The challenge lies in implementing it.

Gross polluters are not just all those smoking old junkers easily identified by make, model, and year. Stephanie Deason of Torrance, California, told the Los Angeles Times that her 1994 Chevy Blazer, with a hitherto undiscovered broken fuel injector, flunked the smog test as a gross polluter. So did Redondo Beach attorney Jason Schlossberg's 1989 Nissan 240SX.

As University of Denver researcher Donald Stedman and others have pointed out, older cars are not always gross polluters, and newer cars sometimes are. Moreover, new cars typically are driven more miles. Pollution effects result from how much stuff cars emit and how many miles they are driven. So just targeting all old cars–and leaving newer cars alone–won't suffice.

This situation presents regulators with their first big dilemma. How can they identify the gross polluters? One way is to test every single car on the road periodically. That's what many states do already, but testing every car is like trying to find drunk drivers by stopping every car on the road–and with the same results: lots of inconvenience to everyone just to find a few offenders.

Next comes the repair dilemma. Old smog check programs managed to identify polluting cars (though fraud sometimes plagued these programs). But achieving emission reductions requires repairing polluting vehicles.

Real-world observations of California's smog check program from 1985 to 1992 suggest that the program fell far short of achieving predicted emission reductions. The old program simply failed to ensure that motorists invested in enduring repairs. Instead, what resulted was a "clean for a day" phenomenon. Motorists paid for just enough repairs to pass the test.

With tests scheduled only every two years, a quick (but temporary) fix was all that mattered. The average price tag for repairs under the old program was a modest $65. And state law even set repair-cost limits. Any car that could not be fixed–even temporarily–for below the limit got a special waiver.

The new program has no waivers for "gross polluters." Moreover, under the new program, repairs can be costly and, sometimes, even impossible. It cost Schlossberg $420 to fix his Nissan. Cindy Weidner of Folsom, California, told the Sacramento Bee it cost her $1,100 to fix her company truck. A pilot project conducted by California officials showed repair costs averaging $350 per vehicle.

Schlossberg generously conceded to the Los Angeles Times that "it doesn't bother me to pay to help with smog." Others are less sanguine about the tab. Even state officials have conceded that, for some people, the program might create hardships.

This is no minor matter. The city of Los Angeles evaluated car ownership and found that 32 percent of those driving gross polluters had family incomes of less than $10,000 per year.

A senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council tried to sweep this issue under the rug by telling one reporter that repair costs would be minimal. The numbers belie this claim–and underscore that tradeoffs are real. Just how willing are people to pursue cleaner air at the expense of other values–for example, a desire by rich and poor alike for personal mobility?

California legislators have acknowledged the cost–and its potentially devastating impact on low-income families–by creating an "economic hardship extension." A poor person with a gross-polluting vehicle can, under this program, register the vehicle immediately without passing a smog check inspection. The owner then has up to 12 months to bring the car into compliance with state and federal emission standards. Motorists can also get a special one-time, two-year smog certificate waiver, after making certain repairs up to certain cost limit that vary by location. The waiver, according to the Bureau of Automotive Repairs, "may not be used for two consecutive Smog Check inspections." Both of these programs provide some flexibility and temporary "cost" relief to motorists. Unlike the old program, however, gross polluters cannot obtain repeated waivers.

The real test of Californians' commitment to cleaner air will come as more and more motorists–especially low-income motorists–find themselves shelling out hundreds of dollars to get repairs, sometimes for cars barely worth the cost of those repairs. Reestablishing repair cost limits and permanent waivers can overcome potential financial distress; such measures also weaken the potential effectiveness of the program.

Beyond this central tradeoff, most of the current problems with the smog check program involve more tractable–though politically charged–implementation details. Already, for example, California has reduced from 30 days to just five days the time it takes to get an appointment for a retest of a gross polluter at special test-only centers. And the wait at these centers has been substantially shortened.

But these quick fixes don't alter some program fundamentals. The new program still requires most cars to undergo periodic scheduled emission testing. New car buyers can opt out of the program for a couple of years–for a fee. Everyone else must spend time and money for a test that most cars will end up passing. Clean cars are punished along with the dirty few.

This is where remote sensing, now more popularly christened the "smog dog," comes in (See "Breathing Room," June 1994). The smog dog measures vehicle emissions using an infrared device set up along the roadside.

Its champions see the smog dog as an easy way to identify gross polluters without putting everyone through some kind of test. They also see the smog dog as an answer to the "clean for a day" problem. If people know they might be nabbed by the smog dog, they may be more mindful of keeping their cars in better working order to avoid a fix-it ticket or other penalties. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency won't allow California (or other states) to rely just on the smog dog. In part, this is because current remote sensing technology does a poor job of measuring nitrogen oxide emissions, which make up a key smog-forming gas. A smog dog to measure NOX is already under way, however, and measuring NOX may not be that important anyway. Many gross polluters fail for all major emission gases.

The bigger dispute is more fundamental. EPA officials seem to think that all cars, not just gross emitters, need to be tested no matter what–and fixed to manufacturer operating standards–if smog check programs are to bring about substantial emission reductions. The smog dog, they say, is not up to the task of testing every car on the highway.

This raises a philosophical more than a technical issue. Just how clean is clean? Is targeting and cleaning up the dirtiest 10 percent of vehicles enough? Air-quality research scientist Douglas Lawson, a former consultant to California's Inspection and Maintenance Committee, argues that getting the really dirty cars is a big enough challenge in itself–and, he argues, that's where the smog check ought to focus. That's where large emission reductions per dollar spent are possible.

Out at the margin–where cars are just a little bit dirty–test and repair costs often remain just as high as for gross polluters. But dollars spent on these cars produce few, if any, emission reductions. Often, tinkering with these more marginal polluters actually results in no emission reductions. Sometimes, as Lawson found when reviewing a California Air Resources Board pilot project, these cars produce even more emissions after so-called repairs than before.

When presented with these arguments by California's Inspection and Maintenance Review Committee, EPA officials were unconvinced. And their opinion matters. It's the EPA that doles out emission-reduction credits to states. States that don't get enough credits (which have nothing to do with real-world, measurable emission reductions) for their clean air programs face all kinds of potential penalties. Some California motorists may resent the new smog check program. But it's the least-intrusive plan the state could implement and still meet EPA requirements. Without a rigorous smog check program, drivers could face odd-even driving day regulations. And the state could face restrictions on operations at the Port of Los Angeles and Los Angeles International Airport, or other similarly draconian measures.

The final irony of the smog check uproar is that lots of dollars and effort are being spent to establish a program that may be irrelevant in the relatively near future. As more and more cars are equipped with on-board diagnostics that monitor vehicle emissions, special testing facilities may not be necessary at all.

This longer time horizon should influence the design of current programs–indicating the importance of flexible programs that do not rely on massive near-term investments that may soon be obsolete. The prospect of pouring money into soon-to-be-obsolete equipment worries current operators of smog check stations. After all, it was just a few years back that they were asked to invest in tailpipe test equipment called BAR-90. Now California's new smog check program calls for tests to be done using dynamometers carrying a price tag of $35,000 or more to buy and install (a lot more if facility changes to accommodate installation are necessary).

With some foresight, California battled the EPA's insistence on an even more expensive type of dynamometer. And the state resisted implementing a program that would send all 20 million automobiles in the state to a handful of centralized testing stations that would have required lots of new investment.

Unlike California, Texas opted to stick with a modified BAR-90 type test, thereby avoiding any requirement that smog check stations invest in yet another new technology. Their choice was not simply the result of political acquiescence to repair shop lobbyists. Lawson and others, evaluating the relative performance of the new-fangled dynamometer and the old-fashioned BAR-90, found that the BAR-90 performed about as well as dynamometers in identifying the real gross polluters. The BAR-90 could not, though, measure NOX. And it didn't do as well testing the more marginally emitting vehicles.

So which equipment test type is better? Ultimately, the answer depends on whether we insist on failing–and repairing–just the really dirty cars, or whether we think most cars that operate above the standard for their make and model should be nabbed through smog checks. And that debate lies at the heart of just about all environmental cleanup programs. How much effort (and money and inconvenience) do people want to spend to achieve each additional bit of cleanup?

Lynn Scarlett (lynns@reason.org) is vice president for research of the Reason Foundation. She chairs California's Inspection & Maintenance Review Committee. This article represents her views, not those of the committee.