Unity hearing spotlights vehicle emissions debate
A standing-room-only crowd gathered Friday morning to hear lawmakers, state officials and industry representatives debate the future of vehicle emissions testing at a hearing of the state Senate Transportation Committee in Unity.
Officials from the Department of Environmental Protection and PennDOT argued federal regulations prohibit Pennsylvania from making major changes to its emissions testing program.
However, representatives from the Joint State Government Commission said the program can be changed, with no adverse environmental impact.
Each side said the other was misinterpreting federal law.
The four state senators in attendance agreed with the commission.
The state’s regulations are outdated, said Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, chair of the transportation committee.
“Those were the 1990s,” she said. “They were different cars, it was a different time.”
The committee is considering eliminating emissions testing requirements in seven counties, including Westmoreland.
The joint state government commission conducted a study on emissions testing at the behest of a 2017 resolution spearheaded by Sen. Wayne Langerhold, R-Richland, who attended Friday’s hearing.
State regulations established in the 1990s require annual emissions tests in 25 counties. The tests are not required in Pennsylvania’s remaining 42 counties.
This was done to bring the state in line with the federal Clean Air Act, which requires emissions tests in counties with high population density or proximity to metropolises — like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
About 70 members of the public attempted to cram into a meeting room with a maximum occupancy of 50. Those who couldn’t fit sat in the hotel lobby, where the proceedings were being streamed to a TV.
Several attendees agreed with Ward, and said it was time to scrap emissions testing in Pennsylvania counties.
“Get rid of it, abolish it,” said Craig Sulzer, of Unity.
The regulations don’t apply to antique cars or vehicles with diesel engines — which means the only vehicles required to get emissions tests are the ones least likely to be big polluters, Sulzer said.
“It’s just ridiculous to require a new vehicle to do that,” he said.
Getting rid of emissions won’t be up to the state. The DEP would need to present any proposed changes to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA would reject the proposal, according to Chris Trostle, who testified at the hearing on behalf of the DEP Bureau of Air Quality.
Pennsylvania is part of a designated “Ozone Transport Region” — a group of northeastern states with especially heavy vehicle traffic and pollution. This means it is under strict regulations, and the EPA would not allow it to drop emissions testing requirements for certain counties, Trostle said.
“The (Joint State Government Commission) memorandum asserts a conclusion that the DEP does not believe to be correct,” Trostle said.
The commission published two reports on the subject of vehicle emissions. The first, based on input from environmental and auto industry experts, agreed with the DEP’s position — that changing the regulations is essentially impossible.
However, the commission later put out a memorandum, based on further research by commission staff. It says federal regulations do permit amendments, and that removing emissions testing requirement in seven counties would meet environmental standards without violating federal law.
“The gist of the commission’s position is that it is allowed,” said commission Executive Director Glenn Pasewicz. “The requirement of emissions tests were not meant to be carved in stone for all eternity.”
Sen. Michele Brooks, R-Mercer, questioned the value of emissions testing.
“Is it really making a difference?” she asked. “What scientific evidence is being shown that it really has had an impact on our districts?”
In 1996, highway vehicles in Pennsylvania were responsible for about 3.9 million tons of air pollution, mostly carbon monoxide, according to data from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
In 2017, that number was down to 764,000 tons — five times lower than two decades before.
Cars pollute less than ever before — which is why outdated emissions standards are unnecessary, said Sen. Pat Stefano, R-Connellsville.
He said they no longer lead to cleaner cars or cleaner air.
“All this money is being spent, and all this time debating regulations, when we’re not moving the needle at all,” he said.
While removing counties from emissions testing regulations is legally murky, there is one potentially easier way to eliminate the requirements for some drivers.
Many states exempt vehicles manufactured within the last few years from emissions tests.
If Pennsylvania were to implement a similar regulation, it would still need to be approved by the EPA but would probably face much less federal opposition, Trostle said.
Ward said lawmakers are working on a bill that would do just that, though it has yet to be introduced.
Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jacob at 724-836-6646, [email protected] or via Twitter .