Burning Gas in Order to Reduce Air Pollution

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A couple of days ago, I had the good fortune to encounter a businessman liquidating his entire fleet of vehicles as a result of the looming bankruptcy of his construction company. My brother and I were in the market to purchase another flat-bed truck for our own construction company, (which is booming, thanks to the hail Mother Nature blessed Colorado with last spring), and we were happy to provide the struggling entrepreneur with the cash he said he needed in order to eat in exchange for one of the capital goods he had mistakenly purchased at the height of the housing boom. My brother and I felt slightly saddened to be benefiting at the expense of the entrepreneur’s bad business decisions, but it was obvious that we were doing him a great favor by purchasing the truck, and his wife, at least, was overjoyed to have our cash in her hands.

The sale having been completed, all that remained for us to do in order to put the truck into service was to get it registered with the State of Colorado. Before the State of Colorado would allow us to give them hundreds of dollars in exchange for two pieces of aluminum stamped with numbers, however, it was necessary to take the truck to an emissions testing facility. The State of Colorado, in all its wisdom, recognizes that the people of Colorado (i.e., those not in the state legislature) are far, far too stupid and lazy to get their cars repaired if they are running inefficiently because of incomplete combustion in the engine. The State realizes that drivers and businessmen would never, ever seek to correct such problems on their own in order to reduce fuel costs, so it forces everyone to bring their cars in for mandatory biannual testing — at $25.00 per vehicle. So, for the "common good" of the people of Colorado, (and to avoid being fined and sent to jail), I took the truck to an "approved" emissions testing facility.

It occurred to me as I drove to the testing center, however, that perhaps these laws are not as helpful at reducing emissions as the state legislature would have us believe. Indeed, by forcing everyone in the state to drive every one of their legally registered vehicles to the testing facility biannually, Coloradoans are actually forced to emit more emissions than they otherwise would in the absence of these laws. Take my truck, for example. I had to burn a quarter of a tank of gas just to drive to the testing facility and back to my house. I burned another quarter of a tank in order to drive to the city and county building in order to purchase a pair of extremely expensive numbered pieces of aluminum. That’s half a tank of gas that was burned and emitted into the pristine Colorado air, thanks to the laws requiring emissions testing and vehicle registration. Now multiply those emissions by 1,807,879, and you get a sense of how much emissions the testing is itself responsible for.


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Moreover, I visited the testing center at midmorning, at a time when there are virtually no lines. At other parts of the day, like the lunch hour or just after most people finish work, there are long lines at test centers, which leads to a farcical situation in which dozens of people sit in their idling cars for long periods of time burning gas in order for the state to claim it is reducing emissions. I once sat in one of those lines burning gas for over an hour in order to keep my heater running while I waited.

But wait, don’t these tests actually "catch" a great number of polluters and force them to clean up their acts? Not in the slightest. So few people are actually "caught" with incompliant vehicles by the testing, that one Colorado State Senator actually likened the program to something the Soviet Union would have devised:

“If the old Soviet Union had cared about air quality, its program would have been run like the one in Denver,” quipped [Senator Kevin] Lundberg. “Long lines, few locations, one-size-fits-all — and all to catch a handful of offenders.”

What convinced me these laws are completely absurd, however, was finding out that my new truck failed the test. It didn’t fail because the truck was spewing out too much smog. It failed because it did not have a gas cap at the time. Since the truck was new to me, I didn’t notice it was missing, but the drably attired old man running the test eventually noticed it. After a search of the cab to see if the previous owner had left it inside, the man informed me that he was failing my truck for that reason.

"Can’t you just let me pass if I promise to buy a cap on my way home," I pleaded.

"But, if you don’t have a cap, I have to fail you," he replied matter-of-factly.

He stared at me as though my question didn’t even make sense to him. We were standing outside at the time, (because my truck was too large to drive inside the facility), and not a single person was around. We looked at each other for several awkward seconds — he was scanning my face trying to grasp how I could fail to comprehend "the rules," while I tried to figure out whether I was looking at a human being or a robot. Recognizing the futility of arguing that making me drive to buy a cap in order to cut down on emission was completely asinine, I finally blurted out, "Fine. Where can I go buy a cap?"

A half an hour later I had driven to Wal-Mart and returned to the test center. The old man was surprised I had returned that day, and he moved in for final inspection of the piece of plastic I’d just bought. He was not convinced that I had purchased the "correct" one, so he called for a second opinion, and for some time two old men huddled under my truck, whispering and pointing to the grooves on the cap and the grooves into which the cap fit. They finally agreed that they didn’t know if the cap was the right one, but they said that they were going to give me a break and let me pass. Whoopee. Twenty-five-dollars and a quarter of a tank later, I was officially compliant with the state’s emission laws. Until 2011, that is, when I have to burn another quarter of a tank and 25 more dollars for a new test.

Meanwhile, the smog I had just created while driving to the test center, to and from Wal-Mart, and back to my house, slowly drifted eastward over Kansas.

Mark R. Crovelli [send him mail] writes from Denver, Colorado.

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