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California Ponders CO2 Future


by Bill Rapai

Ethanol: Why Don’t They Care? by William Rapai (5/13/2002)

It’s CO2 Day for automakers in California.

After nearly a month of intense lobbying and advertising, today is likely to be the showdown between automakers and environmentalists over legislation that would make California the first state to regulate carbon dioxide emitted from cars, pickups and SUVs.

The legislation – AB 1058 – is scheduled for a vote today. All sides agree that the vote will be close. If passed, the bill will need to be signed into law by Gov. Gray Davis, who has not indicated whether he supports it.

The legislation gives the California Air Resources Board (CARB), the organization that sets clean air standards for the state, until Jan. 1, 2005, to create regulations that govern how much CO2 can be emitted from passenger and light-duty vehicles. The bill seeks to balance interests, requiring “the maximum degree of emission reduction possible,” but in a flexible and cost effective way. Automakers would then have to meet those standards in their 2009 models.

Carbon dioxide is considered a greenhouse gas. Growing levels of greenhouse gases are considered by many scientists to be the cause of the recent warming of the earth’s atmosphere. Automakers counter that regulating CO2 is a backdoor way of forcing them to increase fuel economy standards, which is something that can only be done by Congress.

CAFE killers

Today’s vote comes on the heels of automakers’ successful campaign in March to kill legislation in Congress to expand mileage standards under the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, better known as CAFE. Automakers privately admit that they were blindsided by the California effort, thinking that they had largely stamped out any further efforts at regulation for the rest of the year. But their victory in Washington, it turns out, only inspired others.

“California feels like there has been paralysis in Washington over the climate change issue,” said Dr. Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute for Transportation Studies and professor of engineering and environmental science and policy at the University of California-Davis. “The state sees a vacuum and sees the possibility of playing a leadership role, like they did in the 1960s in (establishing) air quality (standards).”

Indeed, a February poll showed that 70 percent of Californians said they would support legislation to reduce global warming emissions from motor vehicles, 76 percent said they would be willing to pay as much as $1,300 more for a new low-polluting car, truck or SUV if the vehicle would save that much or more in gasoline costs over the life of the vehicle, and 64 percent said they would support higher mileage requirements for SUVs. In addition, 76 percent of Californians believe that the state should be doing more to address global warming.

Given that level of support for related issues, the question becomes: Will Davis sign the bill? The governor has been canny in his comments, but he’s up for election this year, and the poll was conducted by the same firm that he uses.

PR battle

That’s why automakers and their allies are working to stop the bill in the legislature. For the past two weeks, a coalition including automakers, the United Auto Workers, the California Chamber of Commerce and taxpayers associations has flooded the airwaves, filled newspapers and staffed phone banks to spread their message: The legislation would give the state power to decide the kind of car you can drive and how many miles you drive.

According to a coalition-funded Web site,www.wedrive.org, “If all these measures were implemented, the cost to consumers would be more than $15 billion a year.”

Russell Long, the executive director of the Bluewater Network, an environmental organization, said he doesn’t understand how the coalition can get away with the things they’re saying, especially after the bill tries so hard to work with the auto industry.

“I thought it would be music to (the auto industry’s) ears,” Long said. “I have a business background. I have an MBA at Columbia. One thing you learn in business school is that industry prefers maximum flexibility and long lead-in times, so that’s how we designed this bill.

“And in return for taking industry concerns into account, California got slapped with an incredibly deceptive advertising campaign, based on absolute falsehoods,” Long said. “The ads say they are going to increase vehicle taxes and gas taxes by $3,500 a vehicle and 50 cents a gallon. I don’t even know where they got these numbers – I think they just pulled them out of the air.”

“The legislation does not grant the regulators or bureaucrats any authority to do any of these things,” Long said. “There cannot be any gas, vehicle or mileage taxes. It’s simply impossible.”

Long said he wrote the legislation that was introduced by Assemblywoman Fran Pavley because it’s time for the auto industry to take a larger leadership role in cutting greenhouse gases.

“Over the past two decades, Americans have made huge gains in increasing the efficiency of the residential, commercial and industrial sectors,” Long said. “But the automotive sector has been left untouched. In fact it has gone backward, because fuel mileage is now at an all time low.

“Of course, (fuel economy) is not the only measure, but clearly Congress has been unwilling or unable to deal with this subject, and we thought this would be appropriate for California to take the lead on this issue, just as it has with many other vehicle regulations,” Long said. “Let’s face it, if California hadn’t forced the auto industry to put catalytic converters on cars, or to develop hybrid vehicles, we might not have those devices today on vehicles across the country.”

No big deal?

Jerry Martin, a spokesman for the CARB, believes that as mandates go, this is no big deal.

“The automakers just have to make headway in a cost-effective and intellectually sound manner,” Martin said. “If we adopt new rules, I predict they will be able to meet them.”

The problem is, Martin said, is that the automakers are afraid the rules will spread nationally and internationally. Indeed, Long said he’s had conversations with environmental groups in several states that would like to introduce comparable legislation. And New York, Massachusetts and Vermont already follow California’s lead on emissions standards, adopting similar rules for their states.

The University of California-Davis’ Sperling doesn’t think that would be such a bad thing, but only if all sides figure out a way to share the burden.

“I think we need more leadership both in government and in the industry,” he said. “The United States is by far the richest country in the world, by far the largest consumer of energy in the world, and by far the largest producer of greenhouse gases. Shouldn’t it be playing more of a leadership role?”

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