WASHINGTON-As of mid-May, the Environmental Protection Agency had not answered a House committee chairman's March 10 questions about the EPA's unilateral extension of auto emissions control warranties under the Clean Air Act. The EPA interpretation extends coverage under the Clean Air Act eight-year, 80,000-mile auto emissions control warranty from just catalytic converters, electronic emissions control units and on-board diagnostic devices to also include hoses, wires, sensors, gaskets, seals and other ancillary parts.
Automakers and the auto aftermarket are vociferously opposed to this interpretation. ``Both believe it is overly broad and not consistent with the (Clean Air Act) statute,'' said Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, in his March 10 letter to EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner.
The controversy began last September, when an executive of Nissan Research & Development Inc. wrote a letter to Mary Smith, director of the EPA Field Operations and Support Division, asking for an interpretation of what constituted an on-board diagnostic system under the 8/80 warranty provisions. He added that it was his understanding that ancillary equipment was not included.
In her Nov. 10 response, Ms. Smith wrote: ``We believe that the scope of warranty coverage is broader than the singular and narrow definition which you have proposed....(The language of the statute) indicates that more than one device can be necessary to properly store or process the (emissions control) information.''
In December, Gregory J. Dana, vice president of the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, wrote the EPA contesting Ms. Smith's interpretation.
``(T)he 1990 (Clean Air Act) amendments clearly give EPA the authority to add new components to the major emission control component category, but only so long as those components carry a retail cost in excess of $200 (in 1989 dollars),'' Mr. Dana wrote. Since wires, hoses, sensors and similar parts cost nowhere near $200, they obviously were outside the statute, he said.
But Richard D. Wilson, director of the EPA Office of Mobile Sources, confirmed Ms. Smith's interpretation. The agency followed up with a Jan. 27 letter to the auto industry, asking for comments on the 8/80 policy.
Virtually every major association representing the auto industry and aftermarket-including the National Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association-has gone on record to protest the EPA decision.
Aftermarket groups, in particular, fear that extending the warranty will tie vehicles and their owners to new-car dealers' service departments for the eight-year or 80,000-mile period.
``Congress, in passing the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, sought to address the concerns of small businesses and consumers by reducing certain warranty coverage and introducing more competition to the aftermarket repair sector,'' said the AIAM and the American Automobile Manufacturers Association in a joint statement. ``Its apparent intention was to diminish `the anti-consumer and anti-competitive problems inherent in such warranties.' ''
A coalition of aftermarket associations reminded the EPA of remarks made by Rep. Gerry Sikorski, D-Minn., during the 1990 floor debate on the Clean Air Act amendments.
``Right now they (the automotive aftermarket) lose...tens of millions of dollars because consumers are confused about the warranty and automatically go to the big auto dealerships,'' Mr. Sikorski said. Consumer groups as well as the aftermarket supported limiting emissions control warranties, he added, ``because the consumer gets freedom of choice on where to repair and they get a usable, valuable, enforceable warranty on the big ticket items.''
In his letter to Ms. Browner, Mr. Dingell noted the 8/80 warranty must be applied to light trucks beginning with the 1995 model year, which begins in just a few months, making a quick resolution of the warranty extension important.
Rep. Dingell also expressed concern that neither Ms. Browner nor any of her top lieutenants were involved in the 8/80 decision and asked whether this authority had been delegated. He also asked the ``legal basis'' for expanding the warranty.
Although he requested a reply within 30 days, none had come after 60 days. A spokesman for the Energy and Commerce Committee said he didn't know the reason for the delay, but said EPA probably had asked for an extension.