Emissions angst fuels new tensions in loveless German coalition

BERLIN, Jan 27 - Tensions in Germany's loveless ruling coalition flared on Sunday after Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer, a conservative from the car-making state of Bavaria, called for a reassessment of limits on vehicle emissions.

Scheuer told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper he would raise the issue, and could push for changes, at the next meeting of European Union transport ministers following the publication last week of a letter in which more than 100 doctors questioned current limits on the emission of particulates.

He said Germany should "end the masochistic debates in which we in Germany harm ourselves with ever-tougher limits", and he rejected imposing speed limits on German motorways to curb emissions and help meet climate protection goals.

Environment Minister Svenja Schulze, a member of the Social Democrats (SPD), junior partners in the coalition, shot back in an interview in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper that current limits were fact-based and there no reason to revise them.

"We should support communities with clean air programmes instead of letting ourselves succumb to diversionary tactics," she said. "That includes, for example, pushing for retrofits of diesel cars as quickly as possible."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition has been deeply strained over whether to impose driving bans or require car companies to retrofit vehicles to lower emissions following Volkswagen's admission more than three years ago that it deliberately cheated U.S. pollution tests.

Critics say conservatives have sought to shield the car companies from the high costs associated with retrofits.

The latest dispute comes after Merkel' fragile coalition nearly collapsed last summer over disagreements on migration, and then ran into trouble after the former chief of domestic intelligence presented himself as the victim of a witch-hunt by "radical-left forces" in the SPD.

Scheuer's comments also drew criticism from the opposition Greens party. In the same Bild am Sonntag interview, he accused German environmental groups that favour driving bans of trying to destroy the country's car industry.

The longstanding debate over emissions and driving bans sparked headlines last week after the doctors' letter.

Dieter Koehler, a former president of the German Respiratory Society who co-authored the letter, said on a talk show on broadcaster ARD on Sunday that the EU emission limits were "completely absurd" and not based on hard science.

Heinz-Erich Wichmann, an epidemiologist who helped develop the World Health Organization guidelines that underpin EU standards, countered that Koehler was "a complete outsider" and that the German Respiratory Society itself rejected his letter.