Legislators seek to delay emissions testing for newer vehicles

Some drivers in Pennsylvania could receive exemptions from the state’s requirements for vehicle emissions testing, if a group of both Republicans and Democrats in the state legislature get their way.

Three bills under consideration, two in the House and one in the Senate, would give owners of newer vehicles up to 10 years before requiring an emissions check. It would also exempt those who have purchased alternative fuel vehicles from the tests altogether.

Supporters of the bills say newer models are built with certain anti-tampering technology and don’t constitute an air quality threat, making the annual state-mandated tests unnecessary and costly for consumers. Others insist, given a recent emissions cheating scandal and tightened ozone regulations, this is the wrong time to loosen the testing requirements. 

Matt Stepp, policy director for Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, seemed warm to the idea. The Harrisburg environmental advocacy group provided input to the state Departments of Transportation and Environmental Protection on the current testing program.

“We could probably haggle over the number of years that is proper” for delaying the checks, Mr. Stepp said. But “newer vehicles coming on the market, these technologies were markedly better,” he said, and delaying the emissions tests would be “a good reaction to the state of vehicle technology today.” 

The state first implemented a basic vehicle emissions program in 1984, effective in 11 counties in the Philadelphia, Lehigh Valley and Pittsburgh regions, said Rich Kirkpatrick, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. In 1990, Congress amended the federal Clean Air Act to require tests in counties with at least 100,000 people.

Today, 25 of the 67 Pennsylvania counties have some form of emissions checks, which usually cost around $40 in addition to the safety inspection, which can cost around $20. Mr. Kirkpatrick said hybrid vehicles equipped with gasoline engines are currently subject to emissions testing, but compressed natural gas vehicles are not.

Officials could not gauge what air quality impact the change would have, but Drive Clean Pennsylvania, the emissions program’s website, reads that it is “tailored to meet Pennsylvania's specific air quality improvement needs” and “focuses on motorist convenience and choice.” 

There’s always been inherent unfairness with emissions testing, said Rep. Jaret Gibbons, a Democrat serving the 10th District, which spans portions of Beaver, Butler and Lawrence counties. Mr. Gibbons, the lead sponsor of one of the House bills, said he began researching the tests years ago. His hometown of Ellwood City is a borough split by the line between Beaver and Lawrence counties.  

Beaver is one of the higher-populated counties surrounding Pittsburgh that require a test, while Lawrence does not. 

“You have people who live on the same street — neighbors — and one side of the street you have testing, and the other side you don’t,” Mr. Gibbons said. 

Mr. Gibbons’ bill would exempt owners of any vehicle registered within the last 10 years, as well as drivers of electric, hybrid electric or compressed natural gas vehicles. A similar bill in the Senate, sponsored by Republican Elder Vogel, was amended down from a delay of 10 years to five years. 

Volkswagen scandal casts a shadow

Still, any loosening of emissions tests for vehicles would come at a politically sensitive time. German carmaker Volkswagen admitted in September to deceiving regulators in the U.S. and Europe by installing so-called “defeat devices” on 11 million vehicles worldwide.

“As the VW scandal showed, tampering can get pretty sophisticated,” said John Baillie, an attorney for the Group Against Smog and Pollution. “How do you know a car is not malfunctioning if you don’t inspect it?”

Further complicating the proposals, any change to the emissions testing would also have to be approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which set the terms of Pennsylvania’s program to meet standards on ozone and particulate matter pollutants. The state as a whole has not met these standards.

“I can’t see how EPA would approve a change to the motor vehicle inspection programs as long as Pennsylvania is out of compliance for the pollutants” the program is designed to curb, Mr. Baillie said. “It’s contrary to the federal Clean Air Act.”

The Automotive Service Association, which represents auto repair shops that perform the inspections, said in October the delay in emissions testing  “ignores the environmental science behind the inspections.” 

Bob Redding, legislative representative for the automotive group, said with “Herculean” changes coming to the state’s air quality plan after the EPA tightened ozone standards in October, it makes little sense to introduce vehicle emissions exemptions now. 

That decision is too important to be made in standalone legislation but should rather be hashed out by scientific committees and automotive experts. While cars have become cleaner, he said, they have also become more sophisticated. 

“Our message is this is all too soon. ... This should be a months-long, if not years-long, process,” Mr. Redding said. “Auto shops take (emissions tests) very seriously. We’re professionals and we want to do it the right way.”

Daniel Moore: dmoore@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2743 and Twitter @PGdanielmoore.

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