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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Intense lobbying by Europe's car manufacturers helped to save a compromise that will let them exceed EU pollution targets for now, but the narrowness of their victory in the European parliament shows that politicians are running out of patience.
Green and Liberal lawmakers said the compromise, which would allow diesel cars to exceed permitted levels of deadly pollutants by 50 percent, had prioritized saving jobs above saving lives.
They came close to securing a rare veto in the European parliament of a policy that had the backing of the EU's member state governments and, more grudgingly, the executive European Commission.
In the end, the veto failed by 323 votes against to 317 for, plus 61 abstentions. Most center-left and center-left lawmakers finally accepted the argument of car makers that the deal was needed to give the industry time to meet its targets.
But the close vote was a sign of how tough a fight the automobile manufacturers have on their hands to save the diesel industry, after Volkswagen was caught manipulating its emissions test results last year.
Europe is the only region in the world where most new cars are diesels, a technology that uses less fuel and produces less climate change-causing carbon than gasoline, but produces larger quantities of nitrogen oxides that are hazardous to health.
The revelation last year that the continent's biggest carmaker Volkswagen was cheating on tests to show lower emissions than on road conditions has put the technology's future in doubt.
The European Parliament in Strasbourg narrowly endorsed a compromise deal, agreed by EU member states in October, to curb car emissions while still allowing vehicles to exceed official pollution limits.
That overturned an earlier rejection from the European Parliament at committee level in December, which had unleashed a flurry of lobbying from industry on the one hand and environmentalists and Green politicians on the other.
In the end, the car industry got what it wanted. Car makers will be allowed a 50 percent overshoot of the official ceiling for nitrogen oxide of 80 milligrams/kilometer for new cars. That compares with pollutant levels of up to seven times legal limits among cars now on the roads.
The European Commission said it had accepted the higher ceiling agreed by member states as a pragmatic solution, but its patience with Volkswagen is thin after its demands for information on discrepancies concerning the emissions its vehicles emit have so far gone unanswered.
While it waits for replies to a series of letters, it has proposed deeper reforms that would let Brussels oversee how governments approve new models of vehicles and take responsibility for ensuring they meet standards.
The reforms will have to be thrashed out between member states and the European Parliament, which has begun a year-long investigation into why EU regulators failed to prevent Volkswagen's cheating discovered in the United States.
Claude Turmes, a veteran Green member of the European Parliament from Luxembourg and one of those investigating what went wrong, predicts the inquiry will unearth evidence to defeat industry lobbyists.
"They (politicians) will not be able to explain to their voters that they are in the pockets of the car industry," he said. Lobbying had so far been focused on politicians with car production sites in their constituencies, Turmes said.
"The tactic of industry is to say that if the diesel market shrinks in Europe, the only large diesel market in the world, some EU car companies would go bust," he said. "This is a fear statement."
According to European Commission data, the car sector provides 12 million jobs and 4 percent of EU gross domestic product. The EU is balancing that against the impact of pollutants, including toxic nitrogen oxides associated with diesel cars. Poor air quality leads to more than 400,000 premature deaths per year in Europe from respiratory and other diseases.
A day before Wednesday's vote, mayors of eight cities, including Copenhagen, Milan and Paris, wrote to members of the European Parliament telling them to veto a compromise they said would make their commitment to improve air quality meaningless.
While the Greens were unbending, saying the compromise was so weak it had to be replaced even if that took time, a majority of lawmakers were persuaded that it was better than no deal.
Germany's Peter Liese, from the main center-right European People's Party (EPP), said the delay required to reach a better proposal would mean more pollution, not less: "This would not have been a step forward for the environment," he said.
Another member of the EPP, Giovanni La Via said it was important to provide certainty for the industry, so that car makers could get on with the job of working out how to meet tougher targets later on.
"This way we will have a clear legislative framework. We will be able to use that as a basis for industry to get down to work right away and plan investment with a clear timetable in order to reduce emissions in cars that will be placed on the market," he said.
La Via chairs the Environment Committee, whose rejection of the compromise and calls for a tougher proposal in December unleashed heavy lobbying.
Initially, the plan was to follow the committee vote with a plenary vote in January, which might have yielded a veto of the compromise. In the end, the vote was delayed until Wednesday.
Just before the delay was announced, Dieter Zetsche, the boss of luxury auto maker Mercedes Benz and President of the European car lobby, the European Automobile Manufacturers' Association (ACEA), met the centrist and right-wing politicians who dominate the European Parliament.
The ACEA said Zetsche had been invited to meet politicians to discuss "current industry challenges and priorities".
German Social Democrat Matthias Groote, who steered the environment committee debate and posted a picture of himself with a smiling Zetsche on his Twitter feed, said the delay was to negotiate an improved compromise. The compromise did not change and Groote was among the 317 who voted to scrap it.
Beyond the heavily-lobbied parliament, environmental lawyers say they have begun court action against nations breaking pollution limits chiefly because of car pollution.
"The car industry has been very successful in resisting successful legislation," Alan Andrews, a lawyer at non-governmental organization Client Earth, said. "But they are playing a dangerous game. The alternative left to cities will be to ban diesel cars."
Volkswagen declined to comment. The ACEA said the latest models are cleaner than older ones, and politicians could help meet safe air targets with measures that encourage drivers to upgrade to newer cars.
Additional reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel; editing by Peter Graff