California May Push Back Zero-Emissions Deadline

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California regulators are considering reducing the number of zero-emission vehicles automakers must produce by 2014. The auto industry says it needs more time to manufacture battery-powered and fuel-cell cars, but environmentalists say the state shouldn't back away from its toughest-in-the-nation air-quality standards.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

California has long set the standard for auto-emissions in this country. But today, regulators backed off their own though mandate for zero-emission vehicles. The state's Air Resources Board has approved a major cut in the number of nonpolluting cars that automakers must produce for California.

NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN: In the packed hearing in Sacramento today, environmentalists urged regulators to hold the line. But in the end, the Air Resources Board approved a 70 percent cut in the number of zero-emission cars required for California's near future. To make up for that, the board did require automakers to produce nearly 60,000 high-mileage plug-in hybrids for California while they're working on new technologies.

Mary Nichols, who heads the state Air Resources Board, tried to assure the crowd that California hasn't caved in and is still committed to clean fuel vehicles.

Ms. MARY NICHOLS (Chairperson, California Air Resources Board): Our goal is to have the California vehicle program be the test bed, and California be the state where manufacturers first bring their best, cleanest technology.

KAHN: That program has been at the center of controversy for nearly two decades. More than once, state regulators have laid down tough requirements that would force automakers to produce zero-emission vehicles for California motorists. But every time a deadline approached, the board back down in the face of legal threats from big carmakers. Critics said that's what the board was doing again today.

Mr. CHRIS PAINE (Director, "Who Killed the Electric Car?"): I'm Chris Paine. I directed, "Who Killed the Electric Car?" And I must admit, coming in this room is a bit like a cast reunion.

KAHN: Paine's documentary reviews the stormy history of the electric car in California, and its demise due to what he calls the board's cowardice. Environmentalists and health advocates urge the state to stick with its mandate, requiring carmakers to market 25,000 electric or fuel-cell cars in California by 2014, and another 50,000 in the next three years. But car manufacturers said they don't have the technology to meet such stiff rules. Plus, they said, the cars would be so expensive there would be no market for them.

Mr. DAN NEIL (Automotive Columnist, Los Angeles Times): The problem with that argument is, of course, in California there is a huge group of people who are willing to pay whatever it takes to get a hold of an electric vehicle.

KAHN: Dan Neil is a Pulitzer Prize-winning automotive critic for the Los Angeles Times. He points to the success of the Tesla, a $100,000 electric sports car that is drawing big backers as it hits the market.

Mr. NEIL: So, it's hard for me to credit the manufacturer's argument that there is just no market for this expensive EV vehicle.

KAHN: Clean car advocates say if California isn't willing to stand up to the auto industry, no one will. But Bruce Belzowski, an automotive analyst at the University of Michigan, says U.S. carmakers aren't lying when they say they can't meet the goals. And that's true no matter how big a stick California shakes at them.

Mr. BRUCE BELZOWSKI (Assistant Research Scientist; Associate Director, University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute): There's a certain amount of reality that has to go along with the stick. So that if you actually ask people to do things that they're not capable of doing, it doesn't matter how big the stick is, no one can do it.

KAHN: Today's decision is bound to have a national impact as 12 other states have adopted the same air standards as California.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

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