Clunkers R Us

Sell your jalopy, help an industry breathe easier

It's known in official bureaucrat-ese as the "Accelerated Vehicle Retirement Program," but even bureaucrats refer to it as "the clunker-junker" or "scrappage" plan. It's the one response to the government mandate requiring Houston to purify its air that so far hasn't drawn much public opposition (or detection), although even those who are cautiously supportive of the idea say it may be letting polluting heavy industries off the hook at the expense of low-income motorists.

The stated aim of the clunker-junker concept is elegantly simple: older cars that are most responsible for vehicle-emitted pollution are purchased by private industry or the state and then "retired" to the junkyard, to pollute no more.

Under the existing clunker-junker program, industries can earn credits to delay meeting their own pollution reduction deadlines by buying private citizens' "gross emitting" cars. Now, in its backpedaling in the face of the public outcry over the two-week-old vehicle emissions testing requirement, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission has proposed expanding the concept through an optional "mitigation fee" that new car buyers could pay so their vehicles could forego the biennial emissions tests for four years. The fees would go into a fund dedicated to the purchase by the state of high-polluting older cars, sending them to salvage yards to be cannibalized for parts and recycled.

The clunker-junker program now in place is an environmental shell game of sorts, in which pollution from one source supposedly is abated somewhat in exchange for allowing another source, in this case polluting industries, to continue its level of emissions. One reason the voluntary program has support from the business community is that it's seen as a way for industries to avoid costly fines from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Then-County Judge Jon Lindsay said as much in a December 28 letter to fellow Republican and incoming Governor George W. Bush, contending that a significant weakening or outright elimination of the vehicle emission test would put "a greater and unnecessary burden for industry to solve our problem." Later in the letter, Lindsay voiced support for industry participation in a "buy-out program of deficient vehicles owned by low income individuals," with the businesses receiving "offsetting credits."

State Senator John Whitmire, the north Houston Democrat who's leading the charge against the vehicle emissions test, backs the scrappage plan in concept, but does express concerns about the "social ramifications" of the working poor adjusting their lives so industries can buy more time to pollute.

"I don't want some borderline, hard-working family man to have to plunk his automobile because we don't want to put a hardship on one of the Ship Channel industries. That's a bad trade-off," says Whitmire. Expanding on the class-conflict theme, Whitmire notes that "Ship Channel industries" can afford high-priced law firms and lobbyists to look out for their interests.

There is, of course, no lobby on behalf of drivers of '72 Buick Electra 225s.

"I believe the Chamber of Commerce and the major polluters along the Ship Channel feel we ought to go further up the chain to get moderate polluters in automobiles," Whitmire says.

Though Whitmire says the scrappage plan is workable, he's pushing for the Legislature to impose a two-year moratorium on vehicle emissions tests. Meanwhile, U.S. Representative Tom DeLay of Sugar Land has vowed to gut the federal Clean Air Act by reducing penalties for state's non-compliance with it, thus eliminating the need for the scrappage program.

Even if the emissions tests are stopped, the scrappage plan could continue by basing a vehicle's buy-out price on its year and model, not on the result of its tailpipe test. Under the emissions testing program as it exists now, a car that fails to pass muster is more valuable than an older car in better shape. The change, however, would make it more difficult to gauge the positive environmental impact of the plan, since the level of pollution produced by the cars bought off the road would be uncertain.

The fear of possible fines from the EPA and the threat of withheld federal highway funds prompted Texas and other states to implement pollution reduction plans. In Houston, those plans include employee trip reduction programs for larger businesses, the vehicle emissions testing and the scrappage program. San Diego and Los Angeles are the only other two cities with active programs to eliminate old cars by buying and scrapping them.

The EPA ranks Houston's air as the second worst in the nation for ground-level ozone, behind Los Angeles. Large industry accounts for 44 percent of the polluting emissions in Houston; automobiles and other vehicular traffic account for about 26 percent. On average, older vehicles emit more noxious fumes than new vehicles, and, generally, the older they are, the worse the emissions. The EPA estimates are that 15 percent of the more than 3 million vehicles in Harris County are pre-1980 models, and they emit 41 percent of the volatile organic compounds that are released by vehicles.

The vehicle emissions test was designed in part to identify those "high emitters" for the industries that wanted to buy them. But the incentive for clunker owners to sell was diminished when the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission reduced the amount car owners had to spend before they could obtain a waiver from the emissions test. The revised guidelines permit an owner to obtain a waiver if he has to spend more than $150 to bring his car up to standard. Originally, owners would have had to spend up to $450 before receiving a waiver and would therefore have more incentive to sell a defective car (with the going rate for a clunker expected to be between $300 and $700).

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