Battle Lines Drawn Over a Greener Grass Cutter

May 23, 2006

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A fierce battle is being waged between environmentalists and a powerful lobby over a staple of suburbia — the lawnmower, or specifically, the lawnmower engine's emissions.

It's right up there with the fenced-in yard, the weed-specked garden, the basketball hoop, the minivan and the cul-de-sac: the suburban staple known as the lawnmower. And while the lawnmower nowadays can include such features as cup holders and C.D. players, a catalytic converter is not one of those features. But it could be.

It all depends on a regulatory war that is brewing over the small engines and air quality.

Small as they are, lawn mower engines (along with leaf blowers and power trimmers) are polluters, releasing significant amounts of carbon monoxide and ozone-producing pollutants into the air. Now, California environmentalists take smog seriously, and perhaps rightly so. After all, California sat comfortably at the top of the American Lung Association's (via Forbes) list of "10 Most Polluted U.S. Cities," with six of the 10 most polluted U.S. cities lying in the state. Despite engine size and tightened regulations, mowers remain serious polluters.

The New York Times recently reported the following data:

Gallon for gallon — or, given the size of lawnmower tanks, quart for quart — the 2006 lawn mower engines contribute 93 times more smog-forming emissions than 2006 cars, according to the California Air Resources Board. In California, lawn mowers provided more than 2 percent of the smog-forming pollution from all engines.

Six million new combustion-engine lawn mowers are sold each year in the United States. Consider the collaboration of hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides from a push mower's exhaust and, hey, you've got smog!

A fierce battle is being waged between environmentalists and a powerful lobby over the lawnmower engine's emissions.jpg In California, a pending regulation — scheduled to take effect next year, if the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approves — would tighten emission requirements for small engines, cutting 22 tons of smog-forming chemicals from the state's air daily. That is the equivalent of more than 800,000 cars a day. As such, air pollution regulators have suggested new standards.

One way manufacturers could meet the new lawn mower standards is to add catalytic converters to their engines. Catalytic converters, those golf ball-sized attachments, reduce the toxicity of emissions from an internal combustion engine. The small devices, which pull smog-forming chemicals and carbon monoxide out of the exhaust, would reduce pollution by 80 percent, according to one study. Catalytic converters have been required on all California motor vehicles for more than 30 years.

Although they've been on car engines since the 1970s, catalytic converters have not been embraced by mower manufacturers, who worry that the devices will increase the chance of engine fires.

Briggs & Stratton, the dominant engine maker in lawn care equipment, argues that the converters could "add a dangerous amount of heat to already hot engines, creating a fire hazard." But the company takes it further and, with some other American equipment makers, says that smog-forming emissions from the company's engines manufactured today average 75 percent less than 1990 models.

Nevertheless, California is considering legislation to tighten emission requirements for small engines, a political move Briggs & Stratton and Senator Christopher "Kit" Bond are fighting fiercely.

Sen. Bond (R-Mo.), the powerful chair of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that controls spending for both the EPA and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), has repeatedly put hurdles in front of regulators. Bond attempted to terminate lawn mower reform legislation both in 2003 and in 2005; he was able to limit legislation significantly by causing it to apply only to California and to delay implementation until 2007

Bond's main adversaries are regulators in California, who have largely independent authority to set air emission standards independent of the EPA.

Bond, whose state is home to two Briggs & Stratton factories, says catalytic converters would cause lawn mowers to become extreme fire hazards. Two studies of lawn mower fire hazards posed by increased air quality regulations have been undertaken under Bond's measures. Both studies, one by the EPA and one by the National Research Council, were issued in March 2006. According to NYT, "the research council report was a paean to California's regulatory leadership. And the E.P.A. said the new standards for lawn and garden equipment could be met safely."

In the 1990s, the California Air Resources Board first put controls on emissions from these engines and subsequently tightened them, the New York Times noted. The new, tougher standards they drafted in 2003 would be the first that are likely to require the addition of a catalytic converter.

The entire argument is reminiscent of a similar one made by automakers prior to the government requiring the devices three decades ago, of Detroit's initial resistance to those who wanted clean up car exhaust by installing catalytic converters, which pull smog-forming chemicals and carbon monoxide out of the exhaust.

Yet four small-engine makers say that their engineers have figured out how to meet the pollution standards safely, with or without the devices.

The EPA may tighten its national standard to mirror that set in California. The agency is due to produce a draft of a new rule by year's end.

So the argument rages on: on one side, the federal EPA and California state regulators; on the other, the largest lawn and garden equipment maker in the country and a powerful Republican senator. And in between, the six million lawn mowers sold each year, as well as the air we breathe.

Resources

A Greener Way to Cut the Grass Runs Afoul of a Powerful Lobby by Felicity Barringer The New York Times, April 24, 2006

Straight Talk on Engine Emissions Briggs & Stratton, May 2006

EPA Technical Study on the Safety of Emission Controls for Nonroad Spark-Ignition Engines Below 50 Horsepower U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, March 2006

State and Federal Standards for Mobile Source Emissions Committee on State Practices in Setting Mobile Source Emissions Standards, National Research Council, 2006

America's Most Polluted Cities by Robert Malone Forbes, March 22, 2006

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