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Are There Changes Coming to Pennsylvania’s Vehicle Emissions Inspection Program?

Two bills introduced in the state Senate recently would exempt cars registered to owners in seven Pennsylvania counties - Blair, Cambria, Lackawanna, Luzerne, Lycoming, Mercer, and Westmoreland- from emissions inspection requirements and exempt cars statewide from the emissions inspection requirement for five years after they are manufactured.

With respect to the first piece of proposed legislation, Senate Bill 561, the thinking of its sponsors seems to be that cars registered in those counties should be exempt because all areas in those counties attain the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), including the standard for ozone (quick background: reducing ozone pollution is the primary purpose of the vehicle inspection requirement).

“Indeed, EPA authorized North Carolina to remove cars registered in 26 of its 100 counties from its emission inspection program on just this basis in 2018,” GASP senior attorney John Baillie explained.

With respect to the second proposal, Bill 562, the idea seems to be that newer cars are less polluting, that they almost always pass emission inspection anyway (thus, the emission inspection very rarely catches a new car with illegal emissions), and that other states (including California, New Jersey, and Delaware) provide such exemptions for new model year cars – so why shouldn’t Pennsylvania also?

Vehicle emission inspections, where they are required, are mandated by the Clean Air Act and its implementing regulations. If Senate Bills 561 and 562 are enacted, would they conflict with the Act and those regulations, and thus presumably be preempted? Or would they be consistent with the Act?

Let’s look at this, taking the bills out of order. So, starting with Senate Bill 562:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations that establish the requirements for vehicle emission inspection programs require emission testing for “1968 and later model year vehicles.”

However, the Clean Air Act itself does not specify which model years must be included by a state in its vehicle emission inspection program. Rather, the Act requires that a state’s emission inspection program meet a “performance standard” that EPA has interpreted to mean a maximum average rate of emissions of certain pollutants from all vehicles subject to the program.

“As a result, EPA can exempt vehicles in a state from emission inspection requirements provided that the state demonstrates that the fleet of cars in the areas of the state subject to the inspection requirement meets the performance standard,” Baillie said.

Because the performance standard was developed decades ago and cars have gotten considerably cleaner since, that demonstration (which is done by computer modeling) is relatively easy for a state to make, even when the program includes an exemption for cleaner, newer cars.

“The Clean Air Act would not appear to preclude Senate Bill 562’s proposed exemption to Pennsylvania’s emission inspection program for newer cars,” he continued.

Now on to SB 561:

In contrast, the Clean Air Act does specify the areas that must be included in Pennsylvania’s vehicle emission inspection program. Section 184(b)(1)(A) of the Act provides that “each area [in a state in the Ozone Transport Region, which includes Pennsylvania] that is a metropolitan statistical area or part thereof with a population of 100,000 or more” must comply with the Act’s vehicle emission inspection requirement.

The need to have a vehicle emission inspection program is not dependent on nonattainment of the NAAQS (unlike in North Carolina, which is not in the Ozone Transport Region). This helps states downwind of Pennsylvania attain the ozone NAAQS by limiting the amount of ozone-forming compounds that can cross the state lines even when those compounds may be emitted in areas that attain the NAAQS themselves.

So, is each of Blair, Cambria, Lackawanna, Luzerne, Lycoming, Mercer, and Westmoreland Counties included in a metropolitan statistical area (MSA) and does each of them have a population of at least 100,000?

All seven of the counties have populations of more than 100,000 and are in an MSA.

“It thus appears that Senate Bill 561’s proposed removal of vehicles registered in Blair, Cambria, Lackawanna, Luzerne, Lycoming, Mercer, and Westmoreland Counties from Pennsylvania’s emission inspection requirement would not be allowed under the Clean Air Act,” Baillie said.

We will continue to track Senate Bills 561 and 562 and keep you posted.

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