Detroit Showing Green Bruises

August 5, 2002

Calif. Makes CO2 Limits Law by Joseph Szczesny (7/29/2002)

In the wake of their victory in California, environmentalists are vowing to keep up the pressure on the automakers.

Automakers are fighting back in court, particularly in California, where they have won delays in a couple of critical new standards on electric vehicles and evaporative emissions, but environmental groups believe they now have the upper hand in the unfolding battle for public opinion. New polls in California, for example, indicated that a sizeable majority of the state's voters believed some kind of controls on emission of greenhouse gases are necessary despite a huge campaign by the automakers to kill the law.

Meanwhile, the environmental groups are moving aggressively to capitalize on the growing public skepticism about big business fostered by the collapse of Enron and accounting scandals that have engulfed WorldCom and Adelphia to undermine the industry's defense of the current fuel-economy standards and to win tougher regulations.

John DeCicco, an Environmental Defense Fund senior fellow, predicted California's landmark curbs on greenhouse gases will serve as the prototype for similar curbs on carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases by other states, particularly in the Northeast. The automakers are vowing to go to court to stop the California law but the fight has clearly absorbed much of the industry's limited supply of political and public relations capital.

Green barbs

General Motors, DaimlerChrysler, Toyota, Nissan and Ford came in for heavy criticism in a new Environmental Defense Fund report for failing to curb carbon dioxide emissions over the past decade. Year by year for the past 10 years, the automakers have added significantly to the environment's "carbon burden," the new report said.

DeCicco said the purpose of the report was to change the focus of the debate about vehicles that are regulated away from unproductive arguments on fuel economy to the long-term damage done to the environment by the heavy emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The public is more sympathetic and state regulators have an established right to deal with environmental threats, DeCicco suggested.

"Each year automakers roll out fleets of cars and trucks that add increasing amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere," DeCicco said. "Over the past decade, they have put their design and marketing talents into anything but addressing their products' harm to the planet and liability for oil dependence," added DiCicco.

If the U.S. automobile industry were a country all by itself, it would be the world's fifth-largest source of global warming pollution, DeCicco noted. General Motors alone produces 6.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, according to DeCicco, who examined a decade's worth of information filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA). Other findings: GM is followed closely by Ford, whose fleet produces 5.6 million tons; DaimlerChrysler vehicles emit the most carbon dioxide per vehicle; and Toyota's emissions of carbon dioxide have grown by more than 72 percent in the past decade, faster than any other automaker, including Nissan, which also increased its emissions sharply.

The Japanese manufacturers dramatically increased the total emissions of carbon dioxide as they have shifted their product mix away from small cars with small engines to larger sport-utility vehicles and trucks, added DeCicco, who said he expects more states to adopt California's new law aimed at curbing carbon dioxide emissions.

"We don't think the report has a lot of new information," said GM spokesman Mike Morrissey. "It reflects the demands of today's consumers and GM's market share. We think it's better to focus on real solutions like fuel cells and a hydrogen-based economy."

Excursion ended?

Ford, meanwhile, handed the environmentalists another public relations victory when word leaked out the company was ready to scuttle the Ford Excursion, which the Sierra Club had dubbed the Ford Valdez because of its need for large quantities of gasoline.

Ford won't confirm the Excursion is actually dead but knowledgeable observers said the automaker didn't want to buy the new tooling required to revise the vehicle's exterior appearance. Consequently, the Excursion will be dropped after the 2004 model year or in a little less than two years.

Jim Hall, an analyst with AutoPacific, says declining sales - not environmental activism - doomed the Excursion. "The environmentalists didn't kill the Excursion, the market did," says Hall, who notes the Excursion never sold in the numbers forecast.

Daniel Becker of the Sierra Club said Ford's decision to drop the Excursion still represented a victory for the environmentalists, which had dubbed the 3.5-ton, 19-foot long SUV the Ford Valdez after its debut in 1999. "Ford has learned the error of its ways," he says. Becker said the Sierra Club will single out another vehicle for public criticism. But it is rolling out a new campaign demanding automakers to push for more fuel-efficient technology. "We're trying to make the automobile industry a much more responsible industry," says Becker.

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