Proposed ozone rule would mean changes to I/M programs

July 30, 2014
State inspection and maintenance programs (I/M), which generate significant demand for aftermarket parts, are one of the tools the EPA will use to reduce ozone levels in the environment when it issues a proposed rule in December.

State inspection and maintenance programs (I/M), which generate significant demand for aftermarket auto parts, are one of the tools the Environmental Protection Agency will use to reduce ozone levels in the environment when it issues a proposed rule in December.

A federal judge in San Francisco sided with environmentalists at the end of April in their lawsuit designed to force the Obama administration to tighten ozone standards issued in 2008 by the George W. Bush administration.

The Obama administration, in its early days, seemed sensitive to complaints from the EPA's own scientific advisory board that the Bush ozone standards were too weak. But President Obama eventually decided against tightening the standards. That is when the environmental groups, led by Earthjustice, stepped in and filed a lawsuit in June 2013.

The San Francisco judge agreed that the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to reconsider the ozone standard every five years, as is the case with all the other National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). Not only has the Obama administration failed to do that, it has failed to finalize many of the details the 46 "non-attainment" areas need to comply with the 2008 standard. 

The San Francisco federal court decision will affect the aftermarket much more than the Supreme Court's more ballyhooed June decision on greenhouse gas emissions. There, the court said the EPA has the authority to force stationary facilities, such as factories, to reduce emissions of GHGs such as carbon dioxide and methane.  The EPA and the Department of Transportation have dealt separately with GHG emissions from tailpipes, considered mobile sources, through miles per gallon requirements on new cars.

Ozone is often referred to as smog. It is created when emissions of nitrogen oxide (NO) and volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) combine in the presence of sunlight. Ozone creates a variety of health problems. Automobile tailpipes are a major source of NO and VOCs.  

Reducing allowable ozone from the Bush .075 parts per million standard down to anywhere as low as .060 ppm would inevitably result in new cities being designated non-attainment beyond the 46 currently subject to the 2008 standard. There are a number of non-attainment classifications. In some instances, vehicle inspection and maintenance programs are required, such as in moderate and above ozone nonattainment areas with a population over 200,000 (or over 100,000 for Ozone Transport Region).

I/M programs check auto emissions when service techs plug into onboard diagnostic (OBD) systems. The OBD system monitors the vehicle's emission control system continuously and illuminates the vehicle's dashboard "Check Engine'' light if a problem is detected. The vehicle's computer stores information on the type of malfunction detected, and dictates the repair required.

The upcoming December 2014 proposed rule will undoubtedly contain additional musings about potential reforms to the I/M program. The EPA started along that line in 2013 when it issued a proposed rule on "state implementation plans" required by the 2008 standard. That proposed rule was never finalized. But in it the EPA indicated it wants to revolutionize I/M programs, a position which has alarmed some state clean air officials.

The main reason for this is the retirement of dynamometer testing, for the most part, and the fact that about 80 percent soon to be 90 percent of vehicles on the road have OBD systems. That transition allows non-attainment areas to revise I/M programs to lower costs through new efficiencies.

The agency said in June 2013: "The EPA believes that OBD technology can change not only the way vehicles are tested but also whether vehicles need to be independently tested at all. One option it advanced was a program which would offer some vehicle owners free or subsidized repairs of vehicles with lit "Check Engine'' lights. The agency went on to suggest that those repairs could be done by perhaps state facilities or even technical schools, eliminating private service stations from the equation.

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