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The nation's cities may one day be able to breathe a little easier thanks to a compromise reached earlier this week between two long-time foes in Washington. As a result of that compromise, which ended a 10-year stalemate, the House Energy and Commerce Committee agreed to stricter auto emissions standards for all new cars by 1996.

The compromise was hammered out by Congressman John Dingell of Detroit, whose district includes the country's big automakers, and Rep. Henry Waxman of Los Angeles, where auto pollutants help create the dirtiest air in the United States.Their agreement, which is expected to pave the way for full House and Senate approval, calls for adoption, nationwide, of California's tough emission criteria beginning with 1994 model cars. An even tougher set of standards would be scrutinized by the Environmental Protection Agency and could go into effect in 2003.

That's good news for Utah, where, according to Gov. Norm Bangerter, 80 percent of the ozone produced is directly or indirectly related to motor vehicles. Ozone is formed when hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides from cars, trucks and buses mix with sunlight. When our cities add dust and other air particles to that formula, the result is smog.

Due to state emission standards adopted in 1975, Utah has witnessed a significant reduction in auto emissions in the past 14 years, despite the fact that total travel in the state has doubled since 1969.

But according to information generated by the Transportation Work Group of the Governor's Commission on Clean Air, those emission reductions will be lost in the next 20 years as travel growth continues - unless, as the work group notes, "something changes." The beginning of that change took place this week in Washington.

Auto industry spokesmen are already complaining that the proposals will "stretch the limits of technological feasibility" and will lower the gas mileage of cars. Consumers are likely to complain that the stricter regulations will increase the cost of new cars by about $100.

But it's time for both auto owners and automakers to face the grim alternatives.

Cars are the largest single source of pollutants that cause ozone smog. And that smog now exceeds federal health standards in 101 cities, including Salt Lake. While ozone is not the nation's only air quality culprit, it is a significant one. Congress should be applauded for its efforts.