European Commission Softens Plan for New Car-Pollution Tests

  • EU regulator bows to nations worried about costs for industry
  • Political clout of carmakers intact even after VW scandal

The European Union’s industrial-policy chief scaled back proposed tougher tests on car pollution at the insistence of EU governments concerned about potential cost increases for automakers, highlighting the industry’s political clout even in the wake of Volkswagen AG’s deception.

Elzbieta Bienkowska, the European commissioner for industrial policy, diluted a proposal linked to an EU-wide plan to start gauging emissions of smog-causing nitrogen oxides under real driving conditions in September 2017. The planned testing overhaul stems from evidence that discharges on the road are 400 percent to 500 percent higher than in laboratories.

Bienkowska agreed to let real-world NOx emissions exceed permissible discharges by as much as 110 percent for a further 27 months until January 2020, abandoning an earlier proposal for a maximum 60 percent overshoot until autumn 2019 after nations including Germany demanded more leeway. She also agreed to allow a 50 percent permanent overshoot of the actual EU limit -- 80 milligrams a kilometer -- as of January 2020 instead of sticking to a goal of enforcing the legal cap in September 2019.

National bureaucrats grouped in the EU’s Technical Committee for Motor Vehicles -- or TCMV -- endorsed the revised proposal on Wednesday in Brussels. A rejection by the TCMV of Bienkowska’s original proposal would have raised the political stakes by forcing the matter up to ministerial level for a verdict.

‘Cynical Decision’

“This is a scandalous and cynical decision by EU governments,” Bas Eickhout, a Dutch member of the European Parliament who belongs to its Green group, said in a statement from the 28-nation assembly’s headquarters in Strasbourg, France. “We will now look at all legal means to challenge this.”

Europe is trying to balance consumer and producer interests a month after Germany-based Volkswagen caused a political uproar by admitting to having fitted diesel engines with software to cheat U.S. checks on NOx emissions. The company’s deception is potentially politically explosive in Europe because more than half the cars in the region are powered by diesel and many EU nations have struggled to meet clean-air goals meant to reduce human sicknesses and premature deaths.

Amid an EU-wide recall of 8.5 million Volkswagen autos ordered by German authorities, Bienkowska shied away from forcing her original proposal onto the agenda of ministers more in the spotlight than the mid-ranking officials in the TCMV. She defended her move by saying the EU is leading the way on better testing of NOx from autos and by pledging to seek improvements to the system in Europe for type approving vehicles.

“The EU is the first and only region in the world to mandate these robust testing methods,” Bienkowska said in a statement from Brussels. “And this is not the end of the story. We are working hard to present a proposal to strengthen the type-approval system and reinforce the independence of vehicle testing.”

Diluted Proposal

Her diluted proposal hasn’t cleared all the hurdles yet because it faces a yes-or-no verdict from the EU Parliament.

The assembly weighed into the controversy over Volkswagen’s test cheating on Tuesday, taking a firmer stance than Bienkowska did in her original proposal. In a non-binding resolution, the 751-seat Parliament said autos’ real-world emissions of NOx should heed the EU limit by the end of 2017.

The Parliament’s Green group wasn’t the only one to lash out at the compromise deal in the TCMV.

"This is a shameful stitch-up which once again puts the interests of carmakers ahead of people’s health,” Catherine Bearder, a U.K. member of the assembly’s pro-business Liberal group, said in a statement.

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