The Auto Industry Cries Wolf, Again

Some of us remember when catalytic converters were attacked by American automobile manufacturers in the early 1970’s. Top auto executives moaned and groaned about the alleged apocalypse the converters would wreak upon the auto industry if required on new vehicles.

Thirty years later, the industry and its executives have done quite well in spite of catalytic converter requirements. Moreover, catalytic converters have led to dramatically cleaner auto emissions by significantly reducing the amount of carbon monoxide (CO), volatile organize compounds (VOCs), and nitrogen oxides (NOx) automobiles release into the environment. Furthermore, the adoption of catalytic converters required the elimination of lead from gasoline, creating a multitude of additional public health and environmental benefits.

The American auto industry’s initial opposition to catalytic converters was not unusual. In fact, the auto industry has opposed nearly every major safety and environmental improvement proposed for automobiles over the past three and a half decades. They have done so for one reason–their bottom line. And yet, American automobile manufacturers and retailers continue to thrive despite the addition of catalytic converters, seat belts, air bags, and, yes, even turn signals–all strongly opposed by the industry at one time.

Despite the successful environmental example set by catalytic converters, the American automobile industry is once again crying wolf. And this time, the big bad wolf is the modern-day pro-environment, pro-public health version of catalytic converters: California’s Low-Emission Vehicle II (LEV II) and Zero-Emission Vehicle (ZEV) standards for automobiles.

The California standards are more environmentally friendly than federal emission standards, which will remain the default New Jersey model if we do not move forward in adopting the California standards. Several of our Northeastern neighbors, including New York and Massachusetts, have already recognized the air quality gains of the more stringent standards and have adopted the California model for vehicles sold in their own states.

A comprehensive report recently published by NJPIRG proposes that passing the New Jersey “Clean Cars Act” and implementing the California emissions standards will have minimal short-term costs for New Jersey consumers and automakers. Furthermore, the California standards could create long-term savings in the form of fuel efficiency and reduced health care costs and costs related to global warming, such as beach erosion.

The development of advanced technology vehicles that rely on alternative power sources like electricity could also significantly boost energy security in our state. Such security is an increasingly important goal as readily accessible oil supplies continue to dwindle while our population grows.

Economic costs and savings aside, we must also consider the health costs to residents of our state if New Jersey does not adopt the California standards. A September 2003 report published by the American Lung Association lists well over one million incidences of lung cancer, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and adult and pediatric asthma in New Jersey alone. One out of every ten people in New Jersey already suffers from lung disease, with millions more at risk for developing it.

Unless we have a child who suffers from severe asthma, most of us struggle to see the relationship between the family car in our driveway and more abstract concepts like “vehicle emissions,” “ozone depletion,” and “global warming.”

It’s time to open our eyes, and our minds, a little bit wider. It may not be easy to see just how dirty our air has gotten, but it’s easy to recognize the effects of poor air quality in our heavily congested state. Take a walk through any oncology ward of any hospital in our state, and you are sure to see the effects first-hand. According to NJPIRG, a leading researcher on clean air issues in New Jersey, automobiles are responsible for over 80 percent of the airborne carcinogens in New Jersey.

I sponsored the New Jersey “Clean Cars Act” because I find the high prevalence of lung disease in our state unacceptable. New Jersey residents should not have to risk their lives and the lives of their children to live here. And our air quality is only getting worse.

Proponents of the California standards, or “Clean Cars Act” as it is known in New Jersey, estimate that we could cut over 500,000 pounds of air pollution by 2025 with enactment of the standards. This would be equal to removing over a half million cars from New Jersey roads. Given that New Jersey is expected to house 1.2 million new residents by the year 2020, our lungs need this reduction.

The baseline federal standards don’t go far enough. It’s time to make a change for the better and enact the New Jersey “Clean Cars Act.” Our children and grandchildren will thank us for it. And eventually, the auto industry might thank us too.

State Senator John H. Adler represents the 6th District, which includes parts of Camden County. The senator is a member of the Senate Environment Committee and is Co-Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.