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Feinstein takes on Briggs & Stratton: Two-cycle engines are huge polluters

Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau

Nov. 13, 2003

Washington -- A major new California air pollution rule limiting emissions from lawnmowers and other garden equipment was gutted by the Senate Thursday at the behest of Missouri small-engine maker Briggs & Stratton.

A visibly angry Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who was unable to remove the provision from a major spending bill, accused Missouri Republican Sen. Kit Bond of a backdoor effort to aid one company that she said would wipe out California's air pollution controls, eviscerate states' rights and raise energy costs.

The California Democrat accused Bond of adding the "mother and father of all riders" to a big spending bill funding the Environmental Protection Agency that would pre-empt California's new limits on emissions from engines under 25 horsepower, which now account for a substantial portion of the state's air pollution from mobile sources.

But Bond said the measure was necessary to prevent the further loss of manufacturing jobs in the hard-hit economies of the Midwest, including his state.

Feinstein had appeared close to defeating the Bond provision with the aid of several sympathetic Republicans until the California Fire Chiefs Association torpedoed her campaign by warning that adding catalytic converters to small engines -- which reach very high temperatures to break down exhaust and would be required under the new rule -- could increase fire risks.

Bond emphasized the safety issue, charging that the California Air Resources Board had failed to provide evidence that the converters would not pose a fire hazard.

"Keep in mind that California would require you to wave or roll around that 1,100 degree-Fahrenheit catalytic converter in the dry grass you were mowing, or the dry brush you were cutting, or the dry leaves you were blowing, " Bond said.

Feinstein read aloud on the Senate floor a clarifying letter from the fire chiefs saying there were "some misunderstandings" about the new rule and stating their support for the state's right to regulate air pollution and understanding that the fire hazard would be addressed.

Nonetheless, Feinstein was unable to bring the Briggs & Stratton provision to a vote. It appears likely to become part of a gigantic omnibus spending measure expected next week that will be difficult to change.

Denouncing Bond's move as "dastardly," Feinstein said dirty small engines were one of the few comparatively inexpensive targets to reduce air pollution in California, which has the nation's dirtiest air, particularly in Los Angeles and the San Joaquin Valley.

If California's new Sept. 25 regulation is thwarted, Feinstein said, the state will be unable to meet federal air standards and could lose $2.4 billion in federal highway money. To avoid that, she said, the state would have to clamp down further on such stationary pollution sources as oil refineries and utilities, which already have stringent pollution controls, vastly raising the cost of further emission reductions and raising the price of electricity and gasoline.

Figures from the California Air Resources Board indicate that operating a small gas-powered lawnmower for one hour produces as much pollution as driving an average car for 13 hours. Operating a small gas-powered weed trimmer for one hour is the equivalent of driving a car for eight hours.

"These off-road engines are among least regulated and dirtiest engines around," Feinstein said. "I would hazard a guess that no one in this Senate knows that operating a lawnmower one hour produces as much smog as operating a car for 13 hours."

The state agency estimates that engines with under 150 horsepower account for 17 percent of the state's mobile sources of air pollution. The new rule was set to take effect in 2007 and reduce smog from the equivalent of 1.8 million automobiles.

But Bond argued that California's rule would cause Briggs & Stratton to move its manufacturing to China, causing the loss of 22,000 jobs in the industry, including job losses among 500 suppliers and other companies. He noted that California had lost 291,000 manufacturing jobs in the last three years.

Bond scaled back the scope of his original provision, which covered small engines under 175 horsepower, to engines under 50 horsepower, but that would still negate California's new 25-horsepower rule.

The state's air board said it had modified its proposal at the request of the lawn equipment industry, to the point of adopting almost wholesale the industry's proposed modifications -- although lawn mower engines still would face stricter pollution controls. Two major trade associations and Briggs & Stratton rival American Honda Motor Co. Inc. have said they no longer object to California's new rule.

Feinstein has been fighting the provision for months, touching off a public brawl with Briggs & Stratton's chairman and chief executive, John Shiely.

Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead

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