Car-Pollution Rules Hang in Balance as Europe Delays Vote

  • Merkel allies seek time to rally support for diluted rules
  • European Parliament plans February vote on new test plan

Renault 'Cooperating Fully' With Emissions Fraud Probe

The European Parliament postponed voting on a watered-down plan for new tests on smog-causing car pollution, as lawmakers who want to go easy on the auto industry sought more time to rally support.

The European Union assembly’s decision to vote in February instead of next week slows a push to veto the proposal agreed in October by EU national governments concerned about extra costs for automakers. The delay was requested by the largest political group in the Parliament -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s European People’s Party -- after the assembly’s environment committee opposed the bill.

The diluted plan would let real-world nitrogen oxide emissions exceed permissible discharges by as much as 110 percent until January 2020 and then allow a 50 percent permanent overshoot of the actual EU limit, which is 80 milligrams a kilometer. Evidence suggests that NOx discharges under real driving conditions are 400 percent to 500 percent higher than in laboratories.

“The clear intention behind the postponement is to prevent this fundamentally-flawed driving-emissions test procedure from being rejected,” Rebecca Harms, co-head of the Green group in the 28-nation Parliament, said in a statement on Thursday in Brussels after the assembly’s leadership approved the delay. “This may be in the interest of some laggards in the car industry, but it is clearly not in the interest of Europe’s citizens, who are suffering the consequences of the EU’s lax approach to air pollution.”

Renault Shares Plunge

European policy makers are trying to balance consumer and producer interests after Germany-based Volkswagen AG caused a political uproar in September by admitting to having fitted diesel engines with software to cheat U.S. checks on NOx emissions. The deception, which prompted German authorities to order an EU-wide recall of 8.5 million Volkswagen vehicles, is politically thorny in Europe because more than half the cars in the region are powered by diesel and many member states have struggled to meet clean-air goals meant to reduce human sicknesses and premature deaths.

Renault SA may also be embroiled in a pollution scandal because French fraud investigators seized computers from the company as part of an apparent probe into emissions testing. Shares of France-based Renault plunged as much as 23 percent after the allegation by the CGT union.

The battle over new testing in the 751-seat EU Parliament pits lawmakers keen to brandish their environmental credentials and to engage in institutional muscle-flexing against auto-industry allies and members with national loyalties.

February Vote

The Oct. 28 governmental accord on real-world NOx tests prompted EU Industry Commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska to back down over a stricter proposal she’d made. Her plan would have allowed a maximum 60 percent overshoot of the EU NOx limit for two years from September 2017 and enforced the legal cap as of September 2019.

The approval process for this piece of European rule-making lets national governments decide on the substance and gives the EU Parliament an up-or-down verdict. At least 376 members of the full assembly will need to follow the environment committee’s recommendation for the rejection to have legal effect, meaning an abstention would count as a vote in favor of the agreement among governments. The environment committee passed its rejection recommendation on Dec. 14 by a vote of 40 to 9 with 13 abstentions.

The full assembly now plans to give its verdict during the first week of February. In the meantime, Bienkowska may present a proposal to toughen 2007 European legislation on the approval of motor vehicles by national authorities -- a step that could help provide political cover to backers in the EU Parliament of the governmental accord on real-driving-emission tests.

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