Lost in the Ozone

I’ve been wanting to revisit the whole Volkswagen emissions testing scandal for a while now, but haven’t had the chance yet. But Volkswagen’s announcement earlier this week that it will buy back diesel cars from unhappy owners is a perfect moment to wade back into this.

While everyone is “outraged” about Volkswagen gaming the emission testing system, keep two things in mind. First, anyone still driving a car that is more than about 10 to 12 years old is emitting more pollution than the offending Volkswagen diesels that have everyone up in arms. One of my favorite answers to audience questions I get in lectures that run “What can I do to help the environment?”, is: “Buy a new car.” Because new model cars pollute so much less than models made 15 or even 10 years ago. But because we’re all driving our cars longer these days, the gains from fleet turnover are slow in coming. My household fleet has model years 1998, 2003, 2004, and 2012, so I’m a gross emitter! Buying a Volkswagen diesel would reduce my net pollution.

Second, for almost 25 years I and others have been advocating on-road monitoring of auto and truck emissions, instead of the biannual inspection system we all have to put up with now. You can put infrared cameras at random locations just like tool booth cameras widely in use now that send you a bill for toll bridges and roads automatically. In the case of emissions, if your car is a high emitter, you can be sent a notice to get a tune-up. On-road monitoring would prevent the very kind of cheating Volkswagen and other carmakers are now accused of doing, and would catch high polluting cars between inspections.

Regulators at all levels hate this idea. I had huge arguments with California air regulators back in the 1990s over it. It was clear the air pollution bureaucrats just don’t want to change. But if they had listened to me, the Volkswagen “cheat” would never have happened.

Finally, the recent announcement by the Obama EPA that it is going to tighten the ozone standard from the current 75 parts per billion down to 70 parts per billion is ridiculous. But you knew that.

While environmentalists wanted a tougher standard—65 parts per billion—and the business community wanted no change from the current standard of 75 parts per billion, the level is irrelevant in at least two important ways. First, even at 75 parts per billion we’re coming close to natural background ozone levels in some parts of the country, because Ronald Reagan was essentially correct that “trees cause pollution.” It is environmentally incorrect to say such an outlandish thing, but for a long time the EPA has been quietly studying “biogenic emissions” and the problems it presents for air pollution control. (Atlanta is an especially problematic local case.)

This is because, second, the new standard, and the regulatory windmilling that will follow in its wake, will make little or no difference in how fast ozone levels fall going forward. Emissions of ozone precursors have been steadily declining and will continue to decline even if the EPA does nothing, almost wholly from technology turnover and improvement. (Remember—ozone is not emitted directly, but results from several precursors—chiefly volatile hydrocarbons (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) combining and “cooking” in the air.) The California Air Resources Board, in a little known projection, expects about an 80 percent decline in car and truck emissions over the next 20 years just from car turnover alone—even if nothing new is done.

The new EPA standard will chiefly have the effect of putting more areas of the country into “non-compliance,” which means more bureaucratic power for state and federal regulators. This is the main purpose of ratcheting down the standard—to keep bureaucrats fully employed and extend bureaucratic reach into the economy. It’s the same reason we keep the stupid “smog check” system for cars even though it is technologically obsolete and suboptimal for reducing mobile source emissions.

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