AUSTIN – They are as Texan as Justin Boots, Wrangler Jeans and long-neck beer bottles.
Nowhere in the nation does Detroit sell more pickups and sport- utility vehicles than in Texas, a market so important to the Motor City that makers have for years considered ways to put hat racks in every model.
But federal officials are expected to adopt new emissions regulations that would mess with the trucks Texans love to drive, pushing up sticker prices from $300 to $1,500 nationwide. Texas officials support the action.
“We’re trying to determine if these standards are necessary to protect public health,” said an Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman in Washington. “We have to weigh reducing emissions and protecting public health against what it’s going to cost the manufacturers.”
Standing next to his Dodge Ram pickup outside Billy Bob’s Texas in Ft. Worth, the self-proclaimed world’s largest honky-tonk, Earle Joe Finch of Tyler shook his head when told of what the EPA is considering.
It’s not right, he said, getting into the cab of his bright red truck, which has two Texas A&M stickers on the tailgate, a gun rack across the rear window and a picture of his girlfriend, Mary Kate, taped to the dashboard.
Once the partner of every hard-working cowboy or construction worker, pickups and sport-utility vehicles, such as the Ford F-150 or Chevrolet Suburban, are as likely to be found hauling children to school or to soccer practice as they are packing hay for the back 40. The largest-selling vehicle in the nation is a full-size pickup (so is No. 2).
For years, pickups and SUVs were considered by the EPA to occupy a small niche in the automotive marketplace and were allowed to emit as much as three times the pollution per mile as cars.
But now the EPA has decided to update its regulations governing light trucks, a category that includes SUVs, pickups and mini-vans.
The agency is expected to release a plan that will force Detroit to make light trucks that produce emissions that are as clean–or nearly–as those of cars.
The plan is expected to almost mirror one passed in early November by the California Air Resources Board. The California plan takes effect in 2004 and applies to all vehicles lighter than 8,500 pounds.
The automakers say that the impact of tightening emissions on smaller trucks and SUVs, such as the Ford Explorer, will be manageable.
But they claim that the cost could be steep for full-size pickups, such as the Dodge Ram, or the larger SUVs, such as Ford’s Expedition or the Suburban, sometimes called the “national truck of Texas.”
The technology to cut emissions on the larger vehicles has to be developed.
Texans bought more than 621,000 light trucks in 1997, tops in the nation. California was second with 580,700. Florida, Ohio and Illinois also bought trucks in big numbers, according to Automotive News magazine, the industry’s leading trade journal.
Chuck Mueller, manager of air policy at the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, said the state would support any change that the EPA makes in emissions for light trucks. The state has written letters to the EPA and the Big Three automakers saying that it supports such a move.
“We expressed a concern that we have a lot of SUVs and pickup trucks, and we felt they needed to be addressed as well,” said Mueller. “We have not undertaken anything locally to explore a Texas standard. But we have raised the concern that the EPA needs to do it on a national level and that we would be supportive of anything that they would come out with.”
State environmentalists say they have been pleasantly surprised by the state commission’s positive approach to the possibility of new truck regulations.
“We are not going to be able to clean up the air in Dallas-Ft. Worth or the Houston-Galveston area without addressing these vehicles,” said Neil Carman, program manager for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.
But Diane Steed, president of the Coalition for Vehicle Choice, a Washington advocacy group, said some automakers have said that they may have to cut engine power to meet the new standards for the larger trucks and SUVs.
“It may be doable to have some of the smaller pickup trucks and sport-utilities meet these rules, but it’s going to be a real challenge for some of the larger vehicles that are so popular with boaters and campers. We’re concerned that manufacturers will simply stop making those vehicles or make them smaller to bring them in compliance with any new rules.”
Others doubt the need for cutting emissions from trucks. Csaba Csere, editor in chief of Car and Driver magazine, said trucks are far cleaner than they were in the mid-1960s. He added that any boost in gas prices, coupled with an increase in the cost of trucks, could hurt sales and the economy.
Credit: Michael D. Towle
Copyright Chicago Tribune Co. Jan 17, 1999