Over 30 years of reporting on Congress, federal agencies and the White House for corporate America as well as national trade and professional associations.

Lowering the Ozone Standard

Aftermarket Business, May 2008

The Environmental Protection Agency's new lower ozone standard will force many states to reassess their automobile inspection and maintenance (I&M) plans. The plans, which vary from state to state, require motorists to get periodic safety and emission checks for designated model-year autos. Each state specifies how onboard diagnostic (OBD) systems should be checked and when defective parts need to be replaced. In California, for example, higher quality aftermarket catalytic converters will be required in some instances starting in 2009.

The EPA announced on March 12 that it was lowering its ozone standard from .084 parts per million (ppm) to .075 ppm. Ozone is formed in the atmosphere as the result of a chemical reaction between nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds, both of which are emitted from auto exhaust systems. States will have approximately three years to determine which of their counties are out of compliance with the new standard and to submit a plan to the EPA laying out how they will bring those counties into attainment with the new standard. From that point, nonattainment counties will have between three and 20 years — depending how severe their air pollution is — to meet the .075 ppm standard.

Many newspapers serving those counties have carried stories quoting local air control officials on the immense task in front of them. In Jefferson County, Ky., which includes Louisville, for example, officials say cars, trucks and other motor vehicles are responsible for about 31 percent of the area's nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compound emissions, while industrial plants are responsible for 40 percent. Kentucky and Indiana officials produced maps showing 19 Kentucky counties and 25 Indiana counties that would violate the new .075 ppm standard based on the current three years of air monitoring.

The regulatory impact analysis (RIA) accompanying the EPA rule suggests that one way nonattainment counties could reduce ozone levels would be through adoption of continuous inspection and maintenance (I&M), which involves equipping vehicles with a transmitter that attaches to the OBD port. The device transmits the status of the OBD system to receivers distributed around the I&M area. Transmission may be through radio frequency, cellular or Wi-Fi means.

Aaron Lowe, vice president of government affairs for the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association (AAIA), says that upgraded I&M programs would be good for the aftermarket as long as auto owners are allowed to bring their cars to independent service stations.

Damage to the aftermarket auto parts industry from warranty work may also come into play if the lower ozone standards encourage states to adopt a California-style program, which mandates that a certain percentage of autos sold in the state be low-emission vehicles. A contingent part of that California requirement is that the manufacturers of those cars must give extended warranties for the emission systems to the buyer. In California, the requirement is 15 years and 150,000 miles.

Changes in state I&M programs and higher low-emission vehicle thresholds will be even more radical if Congress decides to lower the EPA's new .075 ppm standard further. However, President Bush would likely veto any law setting the standard lower — but a President McCain, Clinton or Obama might well applaud a further reduction.

Stephen Barlas has been a full-time freelance Washington editor since 1981, reporting for trade, professional magazines and newspapers on regulatory agency, congressional and White House actions and issues. He also writes a column forAutomotive Engineering,the monthly publication from the Society of Automotive Engineers.