This may be the snow-blower season, but John Deere and Electrolux have pulled out the weed whackers and chain saws over this rule.

Their focus is on whose pollution-control technology can meet--or exceed--a rule proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency to cut emissions from the small engines used in leaf blowers, hedge trimmers and other products. In 1998, 7.7 million whackers, blowers and chain saws hit the market.

Over the past several months, John Deere--a company better known for its heavy farm machinery--has enlisted the aid of environmentalists, state and local officials, and members of Congress to convince EPA that emissions from hand-held engines should be regulated more stringently than the agency is now contemplating.

Not incidentally, Deere said it has the technology that would allow the rule to be phased in more quickly and cut emissions more than its competitors, including Electrolux, propose.

The current EPA proposal, which is set to become final in March, calls for a phase-in of the new technology from 2002 to 2008, depending on whether the model is for household or commercial use. EPA said its proposal would cut various pollutants approximately 78 percent by 2027, when the entire existing fleet of hand-held products will have turned over.

Deere says its new fuel-injection system will be ready by spring. The company, which markets its products under the brand Homelite, said its special fuel-injection system makes for a cleaner-burning engine. Deere is pushing EPA to cut the phase-in period to 2004.

"We recognized that new technology would be required and our approach was a new and different type of two-stroke [engine] system. It's a fairly simple system once you understand the concept," said Tom Griswold, vice president in charge of legal matters for John Deere Consumer Products in Charlotte.

But it does add cost to the product. Deere fears that a lengthy phase-in of the new technology would make its new products uncompetitive with cheaper older models that don't meet the new standard. The proposed rule provides a system that allows companies to continue selling older products as long as the average level of emissions, with their new products included, meets the standard.

Deere and the groups that support a quicker implementation of the rule blame Electrolux A.B., which owns Frigidaire Home Products and Husqvarna, for pushing a weaker standard, especially for commercial engines.

"We are concerned that EPA is being asked to retreat from a standard that can achieve this benefit and not recognizing a technology that can deliver these air quality benefits," Deere said in a letter to the EPA.

Electrolux has told EPA that some of the new technologies are not "suitable for current commercialization" and would require major design and retooling. Spokesman Tony Evans said his company has recommended a "realistic timetable" for implementation of the rule, considering that it has a broader line of products than the "other" companies that have spoken up about the rule.

"The technology requires more development time than what John Deere proposes," Evans said. "How applicable is it across a broad range of product, and how widely has it been tested?"

In its comments to EPA, Electrolux supported a phase-in from 2002 to 2007 and a higher level of emissions than what is being proposed.

EPA--hoping it doesn't get its head shorn off in this battle--won't say much about the impending rule. "We will go for the most protective, technologically feasible standard. Our mission is environmental results, not getting into all these corporate competitive issues," an EPA official said.

As for the relentless buzz of blowers and trimmers, there's no limit on noise. Yet.

As if the Occupational Safety and Health Administration didn't have enough trouble fending off criticism from business over its position on regulating at-home workers, it also faces potential opposition from the Commerce Department on its controversial ergonomics regulation.

Much to the delight of the business community, top officials at Commerce are signaling that they think the proposed rule is "too broad" and needs more refinement.

In an e-mail obtained by The Regulators, Ross Eisenbrey, OSHA director of policy, advised Charles Jeffress, OSHA administrator, "We have a serious political problem at Commerce. Secretary [William] Daley . . . is deeply opposed to our rule as currently drafted." The message goes on to say that Daley could lobby against the rule with the White House.

"As far as we're concerned, there is no rift. That's why there is an interagency process to hash out these issues," said a Labor Department official.

Agencies commonly review and comment on major regulatory proposals before they are released for public comment by the Office of Management and Budget. In this case, Commerce officials signed off on the ergonomics proposal but are expected to push for revisions before the rule becomes final this year.

That's exactly what the business community is hoping for.

The National Association of Manufacturers has asked its members to send copies of their comments opposing the rule to the Commerce Department. And NAM is seeking a meeting with Daley. "We believe we have an ally in Secretary Daley and we hope he uses his good offices as an advocate for business to instill some reason into OSHA," said Patrick Cleary, NAM vice president of human resources policy.

OSHA, by the way, has extended the deadline for comments from Feb. 1 to March 2.

OUT FOR COMMENT: Auto manufacturers met yesterday with John Spotilla, administrator of the OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, to lobby against what they believe will be a final air-bag rule that will harm children and small women. The industry said it has "lost the battle" and expects the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to require a test it opposes. NHTSA said it has no comment on the rule, which is due in March.