Hot Air

January 01, 2008  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Forbes Magazine  ·  Economy

Role reversal: Manufacturer begs for tough Environmental Protection Agency standards. Deere & Co., maker of gasoline-powered lawn and garden tools, is asking the EPA to crack down on emissions from such devices — and to do it quickly, between 2001 and 2006, two years ahead of the current schedule, which calls for a phase-in between 2002 and 2008.

Why is the Moline, Ill.-based company hanging out with the Sierra Club, all four senators from Iowa and Illinois, and associations representing air-pollution control agencies across the country? To save your lungs and mine, ostensibly. But there’s an ulterior motive. Deere is developing a small two-stroke engine for its handheld devices which, it claims, has considerably lower emissions than anything its major competitors can produce in the near future. It wants the EPA, in other words, to help it get a lock on the market. And, to no one’s surprise, Deere has expressed eagerness to license the technology to its rivals — including Sweden’s AB Electrolux, which owns Frigidaire Home Products and Husqvarna Forest & Garden Co.

John Deere would like to use EPA regulations to massacre other chainsaw makers.

So far, they aren’t having any, insisting that the new engine isn’t ready for prime time. "From what we know," says Electrolux Group spokesman Tony N. Evans, "we don’t think it’s able to start easily, idle properly or provide acceptable performance at high speed." He adds: "We believe the engine produces excess heat and can harm the operator and start fires." Poor sportsmanship, you say. Why shouldn’t Deere win at this game if it’s really going to make us all breathe easier?

But it won’t. It can’t — because such devices contribute so little to air pollution. A 1993 report prepared for the Portable Power Equipment Manufacturers Association concluded that the three pollutants the EPA associated with portable lawn and garden equipment constituted a negligible part of the nation’s total emissions: 0.8% of the volatile organic compounds, 0.6% of carbon monoxide and a level of nitrogen oxides too low to measure. Current government regulations will reduce those emissions even further.

So what’s the point of speeding up regulations? "One reason we’re after the EPA to tighten up is that we have to compete with other engines," says Thomas Griswold, vice president of legal affairs for John Deere Consumer Products in Charlotte, N.C. Griswold says the new engines will add about $20 to the cost of equipment, which usually sells for $59 to $99. "If we have to add on price, these units will sit on the shelf and gather dust."

So what’s really at stake here? Air pollution — or shelf dust?