Can this be true, does the Clean Air Act stop most of us from buying clean cars?

A story by Lawrence Ulrich on MSNBC over the weekend made a claim I think we need to explore a bit here on AutoblogGreen. Ulrich writes about driving a very clean six-cylinder gasoline engine 2008 Honda Accord, then says the car is only available in certain states:
You can't actually buy this ultra-green Accord, or the four-cylinder version that also produces near-zero pollution. That is, unless you live in California, New York or six other northeast states that follow California's tougher pollution rules. Only there can you buy this Accord, or the roughly two dozen other models that meet so-called Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle standards, PZEV for short.

Not only can't you buy one, but the government says it's currently illegal for automakers to sell these green cars outside of the special states. Under terms of the Clean Air Act-in the kind of delicious irony only our government can pull off-anyone (dealer, consumer, automaker) involved in an out-of-bounds PZEV sale could be subject to civil fines of up to $27,500.

This law against selling PZEVs outside of certain areas is a topic we haven't really explored on AutoblogGreen. Until now.

Currently, fourteen states have adopted or are poised to adopt California's rules. Florida is the most recent, taking the step in July. The others are Vermont, Connecticut, Arizona, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York, Oregon, Maine, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New Mexico and Washington. To see when these other states followed California's lead, check out the Pew Center on Global Climate Change's map here.

So, how does the Clean Air Act prevent PZEV sales outside of the California-law-abiding states? Or, is Ulrich full of it and this law he's talking about simply doesn't exist? Click past the jump with me to investigate.
Let's start with what the law is that we're talking about. The overall law is the Environmental Protection Agency's 1970 Clean Air Act and, specifically, changes made to the law in 1990. The text is available online here. Section 249 established a test program in California "to demonstrate the effectiveness of clean-fuel vehicles in controlling air pollution in ozone nonattainment areas." I'm guessing one of the pertinent passages for our discussion today is this one (part of Section 249): "Nothing in this section authorizes any State other than California to adopt provisions regarding clean alternative fuels."

There's also Section 177:

Notwithstanding section 209(a), any State which has planprovisions [sic] approved under this part may adopt and enforce for any model year standards relating to control of emissions from new motor vehicles or new motor vehicle engines and take such other actions as are referred to in section 209(a) respecting such vehicles if- (1) such standards are identical to the California standards for which a waiver has been granted for such model year, and (2) California and such State adopt such standards at least two years before commencement of such model year (as determined by regulations of the Administrator). Nothing in this section or in title II of this Act shall be construed as authorizing any such State to prohibit or limit, directly or indirectly, the manufacture or sale of a new motor vehicle or motor vehicle engine that is certified in California as meeting California standards, or to take any action of any kind to create, or have the effect of creating, a motor vehicle or motor vehicle engine different than a motor vehicle or engine certified in California under California standards (a "third vehicle") or otherwise create such a "third vehicle".

So, while the Clean Air Act was passed to, well, clean the air (I think 1970 was before the Bush Administration began naming laws the opposite of what they do, like 2002's Clear Skies initiative, which the Sierra Club says weakens the Clean Air Act), only California was singled out in 1990 to have power to control new motor vehicle emissions. It's not like the federal government was really doing a whole lot to control them. While the EPA was tasked with figuring out MPG ratings for vehicles in the original Clean Air Act, only recently did the EPA begin to establish limits on carbon dioxide emissions, which for the first time will effectively limit fuel consumption. For more on the Clean Air Act and why California's global warming laws are such a bold step, check out this explaination from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

So, we're clear on the legal structure, right? California (through CARB, the California Air Resources Board) can make rules about clean cars (and other states can adopt those laws) but no one else can. In response to these laws, automakers have made all sorts of vehicles, from the Accord in the lede to the EV1 to a whole bunch more. Heck, there might not be much of a green car industry without the California provision in the 1990 Clean Air Act revisions. The question now is why, since these cars exist, is it illegal to sell them in markets where California's regulations do not apply.

Let's return to Ulrich's article:

Naturally, no company wants to bring too much attention to a car that most people can't buy, unless it's Ferrari. And there's the catch. PZEV models are already available from Toyota, Ford, Honda, GM, Subaru, Volvo and VW. They're scrubbed-up versions of familiar models, from the VW Jetta to the Subaru Outback. But chances are, you've never heard of them. [snip]

It's not all the fault of the car companies. The crazy quilt of environmental regulations is forcing carmakers to design and build two versions of the same cars. And it costs real money to make a car this green. So in states where there are no regulations to force their hand, automakers don't want to have to boost their prices for the green versions-or to simply eat the extra cost and make less profit.

Honda appears to be doing just that. It currently charges Californians and other green-staters about $150 extra for these solid-citizen models. But experts suggest that it costs carmakers closer to $400 a pop to install the gear.

Another issue: The PZEV cars don't get any better mileage than conventional versions. Would most self-interested Americans even pay a lousy 100 bucks for cleaner air that doesn't put fuel savings back in their pocket? "With hybrids, the selling point is fuel economy, so there's a dollar amount on that," said William Walton, Honda's product planning chief for U.S. cars. "We want to give people the cleanest vehicles we can produce, but how much are people willing to pay for clean air?"

That's nice Ulrich, but it doesn't answer the question of "Why?" Readers over at Reddit who discussed this article wondered the same thing. It's not just marketing that is stopping PZEV cars from appearing on dealer lots across the country, right? Ulrich explicitly says at the beginning of his article that selling these cars out of bounds can result in large fines, and that "Volvo sent its dealers a memo alerting them to this fact, noting that its greenest S40 and V50 models were only for the special states." But he does nothing to back up his claim that there's a law somewhere that would punish me for selling you a PZEV car here in Michigan. In fact, if we take a look at CARB's list of 41 PZEV vehicles, there are a lot of vehicles there that are being sold across the country. Whether it's the 2007 Saturn Ion or the 2007 Hyundai Elantra, these cars are available, no? What am I missing here?

What I think Ulrich means is that car companies cannot sell a car and call it PZEV outside of states that have taken California's laws as their own. The vehicles might be the same, but the name is different. Am I right or wrong? To get the final word on this, I'm asking the AutoblogGreen community to flex our blog/reader muscles. What's going on here? Is Ulrich right or wrong about this law? If he's right, can you point me to a copy of the law, because I haven't been able to find it yet. If he's wrong, let's find out where and how.

[Source: MSNBC, Pew Center, Union of Concerned Scientists, EPA, Reddit; h/t to Ann]

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