Better Engines

Published August 1, 1999

Emissions testing and oxygenated gasoline, key components of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) program to reduce auto emissions, have recently been shown to have little value in reducing automobile pollution.

Yet over the last 20 years, auto emissions have fallen dramatically.

The explanation for that apparent paradox appears to lie with private industry, using sound science and advanced engineering techniques to build better products.

Industry Builds Better Engines

“Improvements in cutting tools, grinding systems, and CNC technology allow today’s engine builders to routinely achieve levels of precision that could not even be measured a decade ago,” Clayton A. Williams, president of Industrial Automation Systems, recently told Business Wire. “Along with innovations such as fuel injection, multiple valves, and lighter materials, cars today are 96 percent cleaner, and 50 percent more fuel efficient than they were in the 1970s.”

In some cases, according to Williams, machining is 100 times more precise than it was 20 years ago, achieving tolerances less than one-third the width of a human hair.

While EPA Tests for Vanishing Pollutants

Bob Brooks, correspondent for the auto industry newsletter Ward’s Engine & Vehicle Technology Update, in his study of the efficiency of EPA’s new IM-240 emissions test, has confirmed that the new engines make such testing close to meaningless … and very costly for a large percentage of vehicles now being tested.

Using Illinois EPA data, Brooks has determined that 98 percent of all emissions-tested passenger vehicles built in 1991 or later passed the state’s hydrocarbon test. In other words, the test, which uses a costly and damage-causing dynamometer, is being run on 100 percent of vehicles built between 1991 and 1995 (newer cars aren’t tested by Illinois’ program) to detect the 2 percent that emit too much unburned hydrocarbon.

When Brooks examined EPA’s studies on older cars, built without 1990s’ technology, the efficiency of emissions testing remained poor. A higher percentage of this vehicle pool was found by the emissions test to be polluting, and those vehicles were repaired. But their condition deteriorated to earlier pollution levels in just two years–the required interval between tests.

Taking all factors into consideration, Brooks has calculated that emissions testing of 1991 and newer cars results in a cost of over $100,000 per ton of volatile organic compounds eliminated from the atmosphere. By comparison, EPA estimates that it costs just $1,700 per ton to reduce emissions from stationary boilers, such as those used in power generation.

Moreover, the real cost of emissions testing may be incalculably higher. Since it switched to EPA’s preferred IM-240 test in February, Illinois’ testing program has been plagued by cases where vehicles were damaged by the test procedure. Brooks has investigated a number of these cases, which ranged from tire and brake damage, in some cases not detected until the motorist was back on the road, to blown engines and transmissions. The damage complaints have been so numerous as to persuade the Illinois Senate to ask for an end to the IM-240 tests.

EPA Ignores Science of Oxygenated Gasoline

On In mid-May, the National Science Council reported that two gasoline additives, methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE) and ethanol, whose use is mandated by EPA to reduce ozone pollution, are essentially useless. EPA has yet to respond to the Council, which is comprised of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Health.

In its report, the Council stated, “[MTBE and ethanol] do little to reduce smog” and “it is not possible to attribute a significant portion of past reductions in smog to the use of these gasoline additives.”

Nor has EPA responded to several governors, most notably Gray Davis of California, who have asked the agency to lift the requirement that fuels use additives that have turned out to be persistent polluters of groundwater. Water pollution from MTBE has become such a pervasive problem in California that Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has sunk hundreds of test wells to monitor the chemical as it travels through the state’s groundwater. Researchers at the University of California – Davis have been assigned the task of finding a way to remove it.

Federal legislators have received no more cooperation from EPA on this matter than have the governors. A variety of bipartisan bills have been introduced in Congress to ban the use of MTBE and ethanol in California and nationwide. To date, EPA’s sole response has been to appoint a “blue-ribbon panel” comprised largely of representatives from MTBE manufacturers and others with vested interests in continued use of the chemical.

For more articles on vehicle emissions testing and MTBE, see the in March, May, and July issues of Environment News, available at The Heartland Institute’s Web site,