B.C. Premier Christy Clark's government has launched another populist initiative designed to rebuild her party's flagging support – this time promising to remove a thorn from the side of motorists in the Lower Mainland by phasing out AirCare emissions testing for cars and trucks.
The program, responsible for taking an estimated 20,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions out of the air shed in the lower Fraser Valley each year, was unpopular with many motorists who complained about the time and cost – up to $45 a test – involved in having their vehicles tested.
The announcement comes just days after Ms. Clark cancelled a regulatory review of BC Hydro in order to impose her own "family friendly" rate regime. As a result, electricity rates will rise significantly less than BC Hydro sought – by just 1.4 per cent next April – just as the next election campaign gets under way.
The embattled B.C. Liberal government is struggling to get back on a competitive footing before that campaign begins. It has been losing support to both the New Democrats and the Conservatives, and this week Ms. Clark appears to be ramping up efforts to reclaim her lost flock.
In recent weeks Ms. Clark has also floated a name change for her party, launched a review of the controversial carbon tax, and recently invited the public to choose the date for a new statutory holiday – Family Day.
The AirCare program tests most passenger vehicles as a precondition to renew vehicle insurance. Since it started in 1992, more than 2.5 million vehicles have been tested, and more than a third have failed.
However, the government says more stringent emission standards on newer cars have reduced the need for the program, and the rate of return is diminishing. The program will be eliminated at the end of 2014.
A consultant's report, written in 2010, suggested that AirCare should be modified, not cancelled. "Continuation of a modified AirCare program through 2020 is estimated to reduce lifetime cancer risk by 1.57 per cent," the Sierra Research Inc. report states. It predicted "significant reductions in hospital admissions related to acute respiratory symptoms and heart disease."
Rob Fleming, the NDP environment critic, said the government needs to address those "compelling reasons" for continuing the program until the year 2020.
AirCare is only in the lower Fraser Valley where there are roughly one million light duty vehicles contributing to pollution. The program tests about 440,000 vehicles each year but many are exempt, including heavy commercial trucks, newer model cars and motorcycles.
Environment Minister Terry Lake said Thursday the focus of air pollution efforts will now shift to the heaviest polluters, such as heavy-duty commercial trucks. The government will also look at how to tackle diesel from construction, marine traffic and agricultural equipment like backhoes.
"What we're finding now is that most of the cars on the road today run a lot cleaner than the stock that was on the road in 1992," he said. "It makes sense that we shift our focus from light-duty vehicles to other non-point sources of particulate emissions and pollutants."
Under the current rules, vehicles manufactured before 1992 require annual testing for $23, while those manufactured up to 2006 must be tested once every two years for $45. These vehicles must pass the emissions test before being registered and insured. Vehicles manufactured since 2006 do not need to be tested.
The Ministry of Environment, in consultation with the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure and key stakeholders, will study other sources of particulate emissions over the next six to 12 months to find alternative reduction options, Mr. Lake said.
While the news will likely be welcomed by motorists who no longer have to pay for the tests, AirCare inspector David Cumming fears the program's closing will undo the good it's done in improving air quality.
"I don't [want to pay]either, but the reality is, do you want clean air?" he asked. "My deepest fear is that we're doing to take a backwards step."