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The Planet
Victory

When Zero Is a Good Grade

by Jenny Coyle

A decision made by the California Air Resources Board in September bodes well for the rest of the country - and the world - when it comes to the development of non-polluting vehicles.

Despite pressure from the auto industry, the board voted unanimously to uphold its 1990 decision to require that by 2003, 10 percent of the cars sold in California must be zero-emission vehicles, called ZEVs, or near zero-emission vehicles. The program is designed to promote the development of advanced auto technology such as electric, hybrid and fuel-cell cars. Existing regulations will now be amended and the air resources board will take a final vote in January.

According to the board, 2,300 ZEVs currently operate in California; at least 22,000 of the new cars sold in the state in 2003 must be non-polluting to fulfill the mandate. "The mandate will help accelerate the technology to make vehicle fleets around the world cleaner," said Tim Frank, co-chair of the Sierra Club's Challenge to Sprawl Campaign.

Frank - who testified along with electric-car owners, automakers and representatives from the Union of Concerned Scientists and the California Electric Transportation Coalition - said the two-day hearing on the rule was packed with people. "In front of the board was a stack of mailbags that contained 75,000 letters," he said. "Staff said 98 percent of them favored the mandate."

Activists from the Sierra Club's Angeles Chapter generated a healthy chunk of that stack. Their Earth Day global-warming conference drew about 100 activists who wrote letters and sent action alerts urging others to write as well.

"We also helped organize a Clean Energy Ride featuring a parade of electric cars, motorcycles and scooters, which called attention to the mandate," said Kevin Finney, co-chair of the Angeles Chapter's Committee on Air Quality, Global Warming and Energy.

Finney said part of the challenge has been convincing the public that while electric cars may not be for everyone, they've come a long way - and that there's a demand for them. For instance, the U.S. Postal Service wants to add 5,000 electric cars to its fleet, and the city of San Francisco wants 10 percent of its fleet to be electric.

"Today's electric cars are powerful, peppy, full-sized vehicles," Finney said. "They're allowed in carpool lanes, even with one occupant, and they're very quiet. There's no oil to change, no smog check, no stopping at gas stations."

The departure from petroleum dependence is an important point, according to John White, a Sierra Club lobbyist on air-quality issues since 1985. "Some people argue that emissions from petroleum-dependent transportation aren't much worse than the environmental costs of generating electricity," said White. "But it's not just about emissions. We have to look at the environmental cost of the whole petroleum cycle."

White and Tim Frank helped research and write a report that documented those costs - including pumping oil, offshore drilling, transportation by tankers, the operation of refineries, leaking underground tanks and other liabilities.

"This latest decision by California's air board is the way we're going to turn the page from the petroleum era and move toward a zero-emissions future," White said.


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