California's Row over Vouchers

January 01, 1993  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Investor’s Business Daily  ·  California

(Denver, Colorado) "Make a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door," goes an old saying. Well, not always. In some cases you just may find a 300-pound government gorilla obstructing the way. Such has been the experience of University of Denver chemistry professor Donald Stedman.

Donald Stedman built a better mousetrap but the EPA has put yellow tape across the door.

Stedman has developed a machine which, when hidden by the side of the road, can detect how much exhaust a car puts out as it drives by. High emissions trigger a video camera which films both the car and its license plate. This allows the municipality using the device to send a letter (perhaps backed by a fine) to the violator informing him that his car must be repaired.

As present, the standard practice in high-pollution areas is to subject cars to regular inspection and maintenance programs. The problem is that drivers with the dirtiest cars can pass the test by pouring a commercial additive into their gas tank. (Since they refused to pay me a product placement fee, I won’t tell you the name.) Or they can pass by tampering with the exhaust system.

Studies with remote sensors have shown that such cheating is rampant.

But drivers who happen upon remote sensors have no ability to cheat. The effectiveness of such devices has been demonstrated repeatedly in the U.S. as well as in Canada and Great Britain. Indeed, they have now been put into regular use in various parts of California; Phoenix; Ontario, and Stedman’s hometown of Denver.

"If we want to have any success in reducing emissions from autos, we must employ remote sensing technology" says Buzz Breedlove, the assistant director for the California Research Bureau.

But the EPA, whose mission is supposed to be preserving the environment, doesn’t like remote sensing.

Why? Breedlove told me that "the staunchest opponent of remote sensing" he knows once said, "The problem with remote sensing is that it will clean up all the cars and we won’t be able to justify a centralized program on a cost-effective basis."

For over a decade now, the EPA has put all its eggs in one basket: the inspection and maintenance program. In part, this is because such testing requires a large centralized bureaucracy to administer it.

This involves — surprise — lots of money! The tests cost about $25 per car. Remote sensing, by contrast, is about 50 cents per test.

Although the EPA has improved the efficiency of its testing devices, they will never be truly cost efficient. "It’s not a mechanical engineering problem," Stedman observes, "It’s a human behavior problem. The driver’s interest isn’t in reducing emissions; it’s in passing the test."


Stedman’s better mousetrap won’t catch a single rodent, but it will clear the air. So the EPA isn’t interested.

Hence, if the driver thinks he’ll fail and be liable for perhaps hundreds of dollars in repairs, he’ll cheat. And the EPA’s equipment can’t stop him.

But pride, reputations, and bureaucratic inertia refuse to allow the EPA to admit this. And so, while remote sensors work to clean up the air, the EPA is working against remote sensors.

First, the agency actively discriminates against state and local governments that want to use remote sensors. Under the Clean Air Act, governments are not given credit for actually cleaning up the air. Rather, they’re given credit for running programs that the EPA says should be cleaning up the air. And in its credit formula, remote sensing counts for very little.

Second, EPA has now cut off further funding for Stedman’s lab, hampering his efforts to enable it to detect more types of pollutants. For six years he got a fairly small but, to him, vital amount of his research money from the EPA. No more.

But hey, things are tough all over, right? Money is tight these days. But not for things that suit the EPA’s agenda — namely more government regulation.

Competitive Enterprise Institute scholar Jonathan Adler has documented that from 1993 to 1995 alone, the radical environmental group the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) received almost $2 million of your and my tax dollars funneled through the EPA. That’s 20 times what Stedman’s shop was receiving annually.

The American Lung Association (ALA) received almost as much from the EPA. Unlike the NRDC, the ALA does some good work. But part of what it does with all that cash is to lobby for EPA-proposed mandates. It even sues the EPA to make regulations stricter. Since by law the EPA can’t lobby itself, it throws money at organizations who will do it for them.

In fact, the EPA even gives cash to a group called the Consumer Federation of America, which publishes literature disparaging remote sensing.

The EPA’s mandate isn’t to promote bureaucratic self-interest and political lobbying, but to clean up the environment. Supporting remote sensing would do just that.