Big Economies, Small Minds

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    How to solve California's air pollution problem? Start testing all those pre-1974 vehicles you see roaming the state's highways and byways. Just think of how often you see 30-plus-year-old cars on the road. | July 01, 2010

Have you heard? California, by itself, is the seventh largest economy in the world. It's true; if you broke the state out from the rest of the country (which, by the way, is the fantasy of many a conservative), it would still be the seventh largest economy on the planet. That's an awful lot of "economy" for just one state to control; maybe too much.

In fact, I would argue that California has too much money for its own good, and the fact that we've also got the biggest state budget deficit in the nation would support my theory. We all know how much the Golden State prides itself on being first in everything from fashion to professional sports to smog production. Now we can add "worst use of funds, despite having more funds than any other state" to our list of accomplishments. Pretty impressive, no?

But enough about the big picture, let's drill down into an area that really has my logic sensors in "Condition Red." I mentioned smog production and, yes, California continues to produce more air pollution than any other state. And yet Senate Bill 42 (S.B. 42), a measure passed in 1997, made all pre-1974 automobiles exempt from emissions testing. This bill not only exempted pre-1974 vehicles but put in place a 30-year rolling exemption that would begin on January 1, 2003, and continue to exempt vehicles that were 30 years old or older (meaning 1974 vehicles become exempt in 2004, 1975s in 2005, etc.). The original S.B. 42 happened because a large number of enthusiasts in car-crazy California put together a concerted effort to rid their lives of emissions testing for older vehicles.

At first that sounds bad, right? Letting a bunch of older vehicles — vehicles that likely have minimal emissions equipment and produce a lot of pollution — off the hook when it comes time to inspect their tailpipes seems like a recipe for asthma. But if you saw my earlier editorial about the folly of crushing old cars to reduce air pollution, you might guess where this column is going. See, pre-1974 cars make up less than five percent of all vehicles registered in California. And because the majority of these vehicles are restored classics that only come out of the garage on weekends or during special events, it is estimated that pre-1974 vehicles make up less than one percent of total miles driven in California. So, as with the idea of crushing old cars to reduce air pollution, emissions testing old cars is a wasted effort if California really wants to improve its air quality.

But this is a state that went from having a $14 billion budget surplus to a $35 billion budget deficit in a matter of 24 months, so expecting logic to guide the state's government on these types of issues is like expecting a Hollywood actor to remain humble when quizzed on subjects he knows nothing about. As such, the Einsteins (or should that be Feinsteins?) in the state government are looking to repeal S.B. 42 with a new measure, S.B. 708. This time around the politicians want to require vehicles to be 45 years old before they are exempt from emissions testing.

Maybe the politicos in Sacramento feel that less than one percent of miles driven a year is simply too great a percentage to ignore, and that by emissions testing all post-1960 vehicles they can really take a bite out of California's air pollution. If you figure that vehicle emissions make up a third of the state's air pollution, and pre-1974 vehicles make up less than one percent of total vehicle emissions, that means the state could theoretically cut less than .3 percent of the state's total air pollution…if every pre-1974 vehicle disappeared completely. If these cars were continued to be driven and merely passed whatever standards the state came up with for them, the reduction would likely be less than half that, or more like .015 percent of total air pollution. If you're thinking this amount might be hard to track with any conventional measuring equipment, you're right; and therein lies the beauty.

Like all political moves, this one is done to please a specific cross section of the public, not produce real-world results. So if the legislators pass S.B. 708 and tout the fact that they "got all those old clunkers to comply with emissions standards," they'll have yet another sound bite for the cameras during campaign time. Why get caught up in any of the details regarding actual air pollution reductions?

And don't forget all those extra dollars extracted from old-car owners for emissions tests. Heck, the dent made in the $35 billion deficit from this new group of vehicles being tested will likely be on par with the dent made in California's total reduction in air pollution. Those guys and gals in Sacramento really know how to address a serious problem.

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