In Our View: Rewards of Clean Air

Vehicle emissions tests will be phased out in Washington state by 2020



Washington state is getting out of the vehicle emissions testing business for the best of reasons: The tests are becoming increasingly unnecessary.

The phased-out change won’t be complete until 2020, but at least the process has begun. And it disproves the time-honored complaint that, once government starts doing something (particularly if it involves taking our money), the government won’t ever stop. To the contrary, in the next eight years vehicles will have moved into such wide compliance with tougher emissions standards enacted in 2009 that emissions tests will no longer be needed.

The state Department of Ecology made the announcement on Friday, and John Raymond, a longtime veteran in the state’s emissions program, told KIRO-TV in Seattle: “The air quality has improved considerably since the program started, and the vehicles are much cleaner than they used to be. The Legislature, believe it or not, does not want to keep irritating people forever.”

This news is well-received in Clark County, one of the five most-populated counties where the tests are required. (The others are King, Pierce, Snohomish and Spokane.) Each year about 1 million vehicles are tested. Gradually, though, the testing will end and by 2020 Washingtonians will no longer have to endure the inconvenience and the expense ($15) of the emissions test. Vehicle owners will know they’re being phased out of the program when they stop receiving test notices through the mail. Total savings statewide will be about $15 million by 2020; the tests are required every other year, so individual savings will be $15 every two years.

This latest vehicle-emissions story in Washington state involves no new action by the Legislature or the Department of Ecology. It’s all traced back to what seemed at the time — in 2005 — to be radical new emissions standards adopted by California. Washington’s Legislature later followed suit, as did Oregon, which created a West Coast sweep that not only promised less pollution by vehicles but would facilitate purchasing vehicles across state lines.

Ultimately, 14 states would adopt the more strict emissions standards that no longer appeared to be so radical. But those standards were blocked by the Bush administration, resulting in legal wrangling that involved California filing a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency. Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna and other attorneys general joined the lawsuit against the feds. The argument not only involved environmental issues but states’-rights concerns.

With a change in presidential administrations came a greater willingness to let California and the 13 other states decide and enforce the tougher standards. In July 2009, the EPA granted California permission to impose tougher standards than required by the federal government. Starting with the 2009 model year, all cars and light trucks were required to emit 30 percent less carbon dioxide, 20 percent fewer toxic pollutants and as much as 20 percent fewer smog-causing pollutants than allowed by federal standards.

And now, the rewards are starting to come to fruition, not only in the form of cleaner air but in this one small example of less government. Not only will Washington state phase out emissions testing, but other private-sector businesses will be allowed to test vehicles through 2020. And several testing procedures — such as gas cap checks and dynamometer tests — will be eliminated sooner than 2020.

This might not be the first time Californians, Oregonians and Washingtonians have said, “We told you so,” but it marks a subtle shift to cleaner air here and in other states. And those extra 15 bucks won’t hurt, either.