Vehicle Emissions Climate Heats Up

January 9, 2008
Bart Madson
By Bart Madson
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Bashing away at the MotoUSA keyboard for nine years now, Madson lends his scribbling and editorial input on everything from bike reviews to industry analysis and motorcycle racing reports.

As a government entity  the EPA sways with the political winds. Reversing its position twice in the past decade  the federal agency has been tasked with regulating CO2 emissions by the Supreme Court. Now California and 15 other states are fighting to do it their own way.
As a government entity, the EPA sways with the political winds. Reversing its position twice in the past decade, the federal agency has been tasked with regulating CO2 emissions by the Supreme Court. Now California and 15 other states are fighting to do it their own way.

What do the Supreme Court, California and the EPA have to do with motorcycles? Well, decisions by all three could change the way vehicle emissions are regulated.

The motorcycle industry is still in the process of transitioning through the two-tiered round of increased EPA standards that began with the 2006 model year. We did our best to outline the changes last year in our Motorcycle Emissions Regs Examined article, in which we describe not just the new EPA standards, but the differences between California and the rest of the country.

The Golden State has played by a different set of rules for a long time now, able to raise its pollution restrictions above the EPA minimums by receiving special waivers from the agency.

So what’s the big news?

The new changes are two-fold: First, California is now joined by a coalition of 15 other states who want waivers as well (Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington). Second, the latest waiver request involves the regulation of Carbon Dioxide (CO2).

California passed legislation curbing CO2 from automobiles in 2002, with the state law standing up to legal challenges from the auto industry in federal court. The EPA, however, has rejected California’s request for a waiver to put its increased CO2 standards into effect. The decision has prompted Calfornia, with the support of the other states in this new coalition, to file a lawsuit against the EPA earlier this month.

The EPA’s relationship with C02 is complicated by politics. The federal agency under the Clinton administration viewed CO2 as a pollutant and subject to regulation, while the Bush administration reversed course insisting in 2003 that greenhouse gases like CO2 were not pollutants and not subject to federal regulation.

The Bush position was forcibly altered, however, by the U.S. Supreme Court. Last year a similar coalition of states sued the EPA to regulate CO2, with the highest legal authority in the nation ruling in favor of the states by a 5-4 vote.

The current position of the EPA is that it has rejected California’s waiver request not because it has no authority to regulate CO2 (forced upon it by the Supreme Court ruling), but on the basis that there should be just one federal standard rather than a state-by-state system of variable standards.

So legal mumbo jumbo aside, what does this all mean for motorcycles? The answer is nothing, for now. The potential, however, raises a couple of big issues. For starters, will CO2 levels from motorcycles be federally regulated in the future? The second intriguing issue is whether other states will one day apply for waivers like California and increase their emissions regulations for two-wheelers.

What would that mean? Well, just ask anyone in the V-Twin or genaral motorcycle aftermarket industry about their opinion on CARB – the agency charged with enforcing California’s increased regs – and you’ll get an idea. CARB isn’t afraid to dole out fines for running afoul of the state’s increased standards; just ask Dynojet, which had to eat a million-dollar fine this month after CARB deemed its Power Commander altered the air-fuel mixture beyond California’s stricter standards. Now imagine 15 other CARB-like agencies sprinkled across the nation, muddying up an already murky regulation system.

Remember, for the moment all of these increases are targeted toward automobiles – in particular, toward encouraging manufacturers to increase automobile fuel efficiency, ergo higher MPG numbers. So, while automobiles are the clear target, motorcycles can’t dodge the bullet forever. Motorcycles escaped increased federal regulations for 25 years before the last round of EPA regs, but it seems doubtful that two-wheelers will have another two and a half decades to skirt around the issue.

We may be Chicken Little on this one, but it’s a situation that is well worth watching.

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