Emission Testing Gone Wrong

First published in the Austin American-Statesman, July 2004.

A recent contribution to the [Austin American-Statesman] Commentary page by Mayor Will Wynn, former mayor Kirk Watson, and Jim Marston on the benefits of the Clean Air Action Plan is good PR but falls short of good science.

The centerpiece of this plan is vehicle emission testing.  Testing is an incredibly expensive and wasteful way to achieve cleaner air.  The Clean Air Force reassures the public by saying that the majority of cars will easily pass.  What this really means is that the most people will waste money and time every year testing perfectly clean cars.

The reason so many vehicles will pass is that plan intentionally leaves out the dirtiest portion of the vehicle fleet:  Heavy duty diesel engines, like 18 wheelers and construction equipment, diesel cars and trucks, and all vehicles older than 24 years.  Heavy-duty diesels alone are responsible for over half the vehicular pollution in our area, despite the fact that they are greatly outnumbered by cars.  Testing only the clean vehicles is not a sensible way to clean the air.

The majority of the cars that are subject to testing do not actually have their exhaust tested.  For cars built in 1996 or later, the test will rely on the car's own self-diagnosis.  Among the problems that can cause these cars to fail the test: Failing to tighten the gas cap any time in the last month, anti-theft system malfunction, or even a burned out bulb in the dash.  The city of Denver abandoned this test after discovering that 70% of the cars that failed their inspection were in fact perfectly clean.  That didn't keep their owners from having to perform expensive repairs, though. 

Even worse, the testing equipment is incompatible with the computers in some models of imported cars (Mercedes, Volvo, BMW, and Mitsubishi).  Cars with this problem will never be able to pass the test.  The state knew about this problem in cities like Houston and Dallas, but refused to grant waivers to the owners.  In some cases the dealer was forced to buy back a perfectly good car.

There are alternatives to requiring yearly inspections.  The State of Texas already owns equipment that sits on the side of the road and measures vehicle emissions as cars drive by.  This equipment photographs cars that fail, and failing cars could have their registration blocked until they are proven clean.

This method puts the burden and expense squarely where it belongs: On the shoulders of those actually polluting.

Even the EPA is beginning to move away from inspection programs.  Greg Green, director of the EPA's Certification and Compliance Section in Ann Arbor, MI., told Ward's AutoWorld in June 2003 that the emissions reduction gains attributed to inspection programs are small and declining annually because of the annual turnover to new vehicles with more effective emissions-control systems.  In a typical urban area, about 95 percent of vehicle hydrocarbon reduction can be attributed to ongoing vehicle technology improvements - and just 5 percent to inspection programs.

But the biggest argument against any kind of vehicle testing is that we just don't need it.  We are currently in compliance with all federal air quality requirements, and we are not required to implement any sort of plan at all.  Even the Clean Air Force does not try to claim that our air is dangerous or harmful. 

Air pollution in Central Texas has declined from over 125 parts per billion of ozone in the early 70s to less than 85 parts per billion today without any kind of inspection program.  This is despite tremendous population growth and a five-fold increase in the number of car miles driven.  The trend continues this summer, with not a single exceedence of 85 parts per billion so far.  Ozone levels so far this year are the lowest in recorded history.

360 days out of the year our air quality is outstanding.  On a handful of days during the summer our air may be a source of irritation.  But vehicle testing will go on even in the dead of winter when reductions have absolutely no effect.

Travis County Libertarians are in favor of clean air, but oppose wasting taxpayer money.  Most importantly, we believe the cost of cleaning up pollution should be borne by the polluters, not the population as a whole. TCEQ should drop vehicle inspections from the Central Texas Clean Air Action Plan.