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Clunkers R Us

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).

Under the original proposal, pollution generating industries would have been the sole buyers of the violating vehicles, earning "Mobile Source Emission Reduction Credits," which could be saved for up to three years. Supporters of the plan worry that if industry senses that EPA is bending to prevailing political winds, the incentive to buy clunkers for the pollution credits will fade. That's why the proposed state-administered fund from mitigation fees on new car buyers would be a more dependable, predictable source of revenue for the purchase of clunkers.

George Smith, a Houston dentist and clean-air activist with the Sierra Club, describes himself as the "token environmentalist" in the Area Emission Reduction Credit Organization, the group assigned by the state to keep tabs on pollution credits. Right now, industry doesn't have much incentive to rush out and buy decrepit autos, he contends.

"To fund this program, you have to have pressure on industry. Right now industry doesn't feel that pressure. They don't feel that fear at all," Smith says. "They're going to do whatever is the cheapest. There's nothing wrong with doing whatever is the cheapest, but right now the clunker junker program doesn't have the funding because there's no incentive for private industry."

While Smith and other environmentalists generally support the scrappage plan, they, like Whitmire, express reservations about polluting industries getting too sweet a deal. They know gauging the effects of such clean-up programs is tricky. Even if high-emitting cars are tested, the method to determine how much pollution they produce in a year is based on estimates of emissions per mile and how many miles the car might be driven. The estimates are far from an exact science, particularly when those totals are compared to what industry might be allowed to emit in exchange for getting those cars off the road.

"There are some real concerns about industry getting to pollute instead of my car getting to pollute, in that the emissions from that industry might be more toxic than the emissions from my car," Smith says.

But Ruth Reiman, the state's project leader for the clunker-junker program, says the equations are slanted so that more pollution is taken off the road than allowed in industry. "The way it's structured, we build in an environmental benefit, so by doing a scrappage program you've reduced more pollution than ultimately you're going to emit," Reiman says.

The logistics of seeing that clunker sellers can be put in touch with prospective clunker buyers are still being worked out. As it stands today, owners of cars that fail the tailpipe test will be given information about the scrappage plan, and there is some consideration of establishing a hot line so vehicle owners can learn which businesses may be in the market for their clunkers. The state, for its part, will keep records on the owners of failed cars or those who obtain hardship or minimum expenditure waivers, so that industries wanting to buy their vehicles can contact them.

Reiman says TNRCC has received calls from lawyers and other agents representing major corporations inquiring about the plan. But she's unsure when the program actually will junk its first clunker.

"It's not a cheap program," she says. "When you calculate out how many cars you have to buy and what it will cost you per ton, it's very costly, depending on how many tons of emission you need." For a company to be credited to emit 70 tons of pollutants known as volatile organic compounds, it might have to spend $700,000 to buy 1,400 clunkers, assuming the average cost-per-clunker was $500.

Creation of a mitigation fee fund would help get more clunkers off the road, Reiman says, since without it only companies with lots of money or significant pollution problems look like candidates for participation.

But even proponents admit that an expanded plan to scrap older cars won't do a whole lot to impact big-picture issues like Houston's chronic dependence on autos. Seller of clunkers aren't likely to be buying hot-off-the-assembly-line, low-emitting new cars. And even if the new program takes off, it's unlikely that many pollution-producing old cars will be bought for salvage. In San Diego, which is said to have the best program of the two in existence, only 700 cars have been junked.  


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