Before we go any further, here's the entire statement from agency spokeswoman Laura Allen:
People may use EPA-certified motor vehicles for competition, but to protect public health from air pollution, the Clean Air Act has – since its inception – specifically prohibited tampering with or defeating the emission control systems on those vehicles.
The proposed regulation that SEMA has commented on does not change this long-standing law, or approach. Instead, the proposed language in the Heavy-Duty Greenhouse Gas rulemaking simply clarifies the distinction between motor vehicles and nonroad vehicles such as dirt bikes and snowmobiles. Unlike motor vehicles – which include cars, light trucks, and highway motorcycles – nonroad vehicles may, under certain circumstances, be modified for use in competitive events in ways that would otherwise be prohibited by the Clean Air Act.
EPA is now reviewing public comments on this proposal.
According to this statement, it's already against the law to perform any modifications to a vehicle that result in the tampering or removal of emissions control systems, even for competition. In other words, if you have removed a catalytic converter from your racecar, you're already afoul of the rules. Conversely, if your vehicle is old enough that it didn't come with emissions control equipment in the first place, you're seemingly free and clear.
Further, the EPA claims that the new wording of its regulations only seeks to differentiate nonroad vehicles from "motor vehicles." Two nonroad vehicles specifically mentioned by the EPA include dirt bikes and snowmobiles. Any vehicle that was sold with a certificate of conformity that allows them to be used on public roads, however, are "motor vehicles" and therefore must have all their emissions controls intact. And that's regardless of whether or not the motor vehicle in question will ever actually be used on public roads.
Put another way, according to the EPA's statement, a reflash of your car's engine control unit would be illegal (it doesn't matter if it's gasoline or diesel) if it alters the car's emissions, even if you never drive that car on the street. The same would be true of a number of common modifications for cars used in competition, which would include drag racing, drifting or LeMons.
Thing is, we're still just as confused by this regulation as we were before. And so, it seems, is SEMA. Stephen McDonald, vice president of government affairs for SEMA, said in a statement, "The EPA has never implemented a policy making it illegal for certified vehicles to become competition-use only vehicles." If the statement from the EPA above is accurate, McDonald's assertion is simply not true. In fact, it would seem that the halls of the yearly SEMA Show in Las Vegas are full of potentially illegal products that have simply been overlooked by the EPA.
Anyone who has modified their vehicle for competition could be facing a civil penalty up to $37,500.
Unfortunately for grassroots racing fans, McDonald's further statement would be fully accurate, best we can tell. "Such a policy would overturn decades of understanding within the regulated community and expose that community to unfair findings of noncompliance and civil penalties," he said. What's more, any current racing series that bases their rulebook on the modification of production cars may need to take another look at their legality.
We've spent much of the morning reading through the 629-page document from the EPA that brought on this anti-modification revelation in the first place, and we've found several inconsistencies that we hope to get further clarification of. As things stand at present, though, it sounds to us like anyone currently using a vehicle solely for competition (say, a Miata in LeMons or a Mustang at the drag strip) who has removed a catalytic converter or reflashed an ECU could be facing "a civil penalty up to $37,500 for each engine or piece of equipment in violation." Yikes.