"I don't know why all cars aren't made like this," Diane Gillis said, loading groceries into her Honda hybrid in the Weaver Street Market parking lot in Carrboro. Gillis said she chose a gasoline-electric vehicle—her second—for "environmental reasons and to save money on gas."
If some local lawmakers have their way, a lot more North Carolinians will be driving cars like Gillis' import, which gets 44 miles per gallon. N.C. Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange County, plans to introduce legislation within the next few weeks to raise North Carolina's tailpipe emissions standards to meet those adopted by California in 2002. Though the legislation is aimed at greenhouse gases, not fuel economy, it would effectively force mileage standards of new automobiles to an estimated 43 miles per gallon by 2020.
"If we can clean our air up, it leads to longer lives and healthier children," Kinnaird said. "It's something we are obligated to pursue on behalf of our constituents."
Kinnaird said she'd introduce the Senate version of a bill that Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Greensboro, plans to reintroduce in the House. This will be the third time Harrison has pushed for the measure.
"It's been a frustrating fight," Harrison said.
Representatives of an auto industry reeling from the recession say they are terrified of a national patchwork of regulation, in which some vehicles are only legal in some states.
"It's like a contest to see how fast you could put the automakers out of business," said Bob Glaser, a Raleigh lobbyist for the N.C. Automobile Dealers Association. "All of the big SUVs and big trucks won't qualify for this. The day of the F 250, the farm truck, the truck that pulls your boat [will be] over. You just won't be able to get them."
Joe Wiedholz, general manager of University Ford in Chapel Hill, said he was concerned that adoption of the California standards would hurt local dealers.
"It's going to be hard on everybody in our area," Wiedholz said. "Trying to work with the environment is good, but it needs to be taken in steps, not one big swoop."
Harrison said the bill is a necessary measure, not a punishment, for the American auto industry.
"Can I say how frustrated I am that we're bailing them out?" Harrison said. "If they had made these changes years ago, they'd be in much better shape. Instead, they've fought tooth and nail for tax breaks to sell their Hummers."
Harrison and other supporters of the bill believe that last November's election results shifted the political winds in their favor.
"Now that Obama's in the White House, we have a fighting chance on these things," Kinnaird said.
California and more than a dozen states that followed its lead were thwarted in their efforts to implement higher emissions standards by the EPA under the Bush administration. President Barack Obama, though, has encouraged environmental regulators to allow states to raise their standards higher than the federally mandated Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) levels. Obama has proposed CAFE standards that would raise fuel economy, but not by as much as the California standards.
The EPA plans to announce a decision in June.
Supporters note that North Carolina's approval of the legislation would mean nearly 50 percent of the United States' population lived in states with higher emissions standards (most other adoptees are populous states), thus forcing automakers to pursue a higher standard overall, rather than manufacturing cars of differing efficiency levels.
"The more states that move forward, the more pressure there is for manufacturers," said Molly Diggins, state director of the North Carolina Sierra Club.
"[The legislature's] past hesitation was not around the cost, it was around the roadblocks from the Bush administration," said Margaret Hartzell, global warming advocate for Environment North Carolina (ENC), a Raleigh-based nonprofit. "The Obama administration has given the green light."
A study by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources' (DENR) Air Quality Division, released in January, projected that the California standards would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from mobile sources nearly 40 percent more than the federal standards. (Cars and trucks account for nearly 30 percent of the state's total air pollution, according to DENR.)
And a study conducted by ENC projected a 10 percent decrease in the state's overall automobile greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 if the California standards were to be adopted. Though the tougher standards would likely raise the average cost of a new car by more than $1,000, ENC claims that consumers would save an average of $20 a month overall (with gas at $3 per gallon), given the decrease in fuel consumption.
"It's a benefit to the environment and even better for consumers," Hartzell said.
UNC-Chapel Hill epidemiologist Steve Wing took a slightly stronger tack.
"The idea that we consume more than the rest of the world is appalling," Wing said, strapping a bag of oranges to the rack on his bicycle outside Carr Mill Mall. "The amount of greenhouse gases contributed by the biggest SUVs is like pissing in the ocean."