Just Don't Breathe It

What Houstonians can -- and probably won't -- do to clean up the air they drive through

"They need to include mass transit in a serious way, but overwhelmingly it is just geared to more of the same," she said. "It's a tremendous lost opportunity, in addition to a lot of money being wasted."

Though smart highways may deliver less than many might like, science does hold out some hope for emission control. How quickly close-to-zero-emission vehicles are developed likely will depend on how well government edicts and timetables motivate industry and inventors.

Worldwatch's Chris Flavin said, "The history of this is automotive manufacturers always claim these things are impossible to meet when they're first proposed and that they're going to cost a fortune, but when push comes to shove, they end up being relatively easy to achieve and relatively cheap.

"That happened with the catalytic converter, that happened with the air bag and that will happen with these new California emission standards."

Emissions today are much better than way back when: today's cars are 70 to 80 percent cleaner than autos were in 1970, when the first version of the Clean Air Act was passed. Trouble is, there are lot more vehicles on the road today, and many of the pollution-control devices deteriorate over time. New federal standards will be 90 percent less lenient than 1970 levels.

California does have a better standard, requiring its cars to be 95 to 98 percent better than they were in 1970 and 10 percent of its cars to have zero emissions in 2003. Most of those "zero-emission" cars will be electric cars.

Flavin foresees an "ultra-low-emission car" that is 99.5 percent cleaner. The basic concept is an internal-combustion engine, a gas turbine or a fuel cell that produces electricity for the car by using a very small engine operating at only one speed. Flavin believes that this could occur within the next ten years. "I would never use the term 'totally zero emission,' but I would call it a virtually clean car," he said.

"You can really fine-tune the pollution-control device," Flavin said. "You're operating at super efficiency levels all the time. That kind of a technology produces a more efficient car, using 150 miles per gallon. Those technologies are well on the way."

But Texas should not wait for this wonder car, Flavin said. Its arrival, along with other technological progress, could be hastened by governmental action. Massachusetts and New York have adopted California's rigid emission standards, and Flavin thinks Texas should follow suit. California adopted tougher standards because its air is that much worse, and so more stringent rules are needed.

Flavin said, "Texas is making a huge mistake by sticking with these weak federal standards when you could have the California standard, which is much stronger, and it would encourage the use of Texas natural gas in your cars -- rather than Middle Eastern oil."

Old clunker cars, particularly those made before 1975, should be weeded out somehow, since one such car can produce as much pollution as 50 new cars.

Technological advances, more stringent emission standards, more sensible driving habits and something like the Employee Trip Reduction Program are all needed to reduce ground-level ozone pollution. "You need a mixture of all these kinds of things," Flavin said. "There's no single magic bullet."

Still, old habits die hard. Gillen is not surprised that he meets resistance when he advises commuters to consider giving up their solitary ride to and from work. Before his stint with the state pollution folks, Gillen was a park ranger in north Texas.

"One of the hardest things we did as park rangers was to cut off vehicle access to a part of the park. We in this country feel we have a right to drive our automobiles wherever and whenever we please. So it is hard. We all have that mindset. It's what we have become accustomed to. It's going to take changing some behavioral patterns. Can we really change those behaviors? I don't know.

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