Parliament declares war on Auto/Oil standards

The European Parliament has voted overwhelmingly to toughen up proposed Directives on vehicle emissions and fuel quality - and is particularly keen to set binding limits for 2005. The final shape of the proposals will now be decided in difficult "conciliation" talks between the Parliament and the Council of Ministers.

The draft Directives stem from the Auto/Oil programme, a tripartite initiative between the European Commission and the oil and car industries designed to secure cost-effective compliance with air quality objectives by 2010.

Last summer, Environment Ministers agreed a common position significantly tougher than the Commission's original proposals (ENDS Report 269, pp 43-44 ). On 18 February, an unexpectedly large majority of MEPs approved a series of amendments which would toughen the text still further.

Parliament's most significant change is its insistence on binding vehicle emission limits and fuel quality standards for 2005. The Council agreed binding standards for 2000, but proposed only indicative standards for 2005. It intended that these would be confirmed or modified in light of the Auto/Oil II programme, which will include a more thorough analysis of Europe's air quality problems. The programme is due to be completed by mid-1999, but may be delayed by disagreements between the car and oil industries.

However, the Parliament concluded that binding limits for 2005 are needed to enable industry to make the necessary investments and adapt its production plans. It accepted its Environment Committee's call for binding sulphur limits of 30ppm for petrol and 50ppm for diesel in 2005. The Council had offered only indicative limits of 50ppm for both fuels.

MEPs were swayed by the argument that low fuel sulphur levels are needed to enable car makers to introduce more efficient petrol engines and diesels with lower emissions of nitrogen oxides (ENDS Report 276, p 9 ). The Environment Committee's rapporteur accused the oil industry of consistently overstating the investment costs of meeting tougher standards.

Parliament also voted for tighter fuel quality standards to come into force in January 2000. For petrol, it backed tighter limits on olefins and aromatics. And for diesel, MEPs want the sulphur limit for 2000 lowered from 350ppm to 200ppm.

Despite lobbying from environmental groups, MEPs retained the Council's proposal to permit a five-year derogation on the ban on marketing of leaded petrol from 2000. This would apply in Member States which could demonstrate that a ban in 2000 would cause "severe socio-economic problems". They also approved a one-year derogation for petrol quality standards for 2000 where a Member State's refining industry would experience "severe difficulties", and introduced scope for a three-year derogation on the diesel sulphur standard. The moves were a bid to secure support from MEPs from southern Member States.

Oil industry trade association Europia reacted angrily to the vote. "MEPs have listened to the calls of extremists and ignored the voice of reason," a spokesman said. He accused them of going against the Auto/Oil principles of cost-effectiveness agreed by the Parliament and Council in 1994. Europia claims that Parliament's package would cost five times more than the Commission's original proposals, but improve air quality by just 1%.

Parliament also voted to tighten emission standards for particulates and nitrogen oxides from diesel cars, and of hydrocarbons from both diesel and petrol cars. It also backed a significant tightening of emission limits on light commercial vehicles, proposed under a separate Directive (ENDS Report 269, pp 43-44 ). Again, it wants the Council's indicative emission limits for all vehicles in 2005 to be made mandatory.

All three proposals will now have to be settled under the conciliation procedure. The negotiations are likely to prove difficult. Last year, the Council suggested that its common position was as far as it was prepared to go, but the Parliament has been given a strong hand by the large majority in favour of its amendments. Negotiations are due to be concluded by the end of the UK Presidency in June.

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