California's Fuel Standard Is a Cancer, Says Former GM Executive

Most auto people will correctly point out that California's 2016 43 mpg number threatens the existence of the industry.

Published: 06-Apr-2008

No sooner had the ink from President Bush's signature dried on last year's long-awaited energy bill -- calling for a 35 miles-per-gallon average for cars and trucks by 2020 -- than environmental activists and their lawyers began turning up the heat for an even tougher standard.
This time the object of their affection was an import from California, a fuel economy measure disguised as a way to lessen the threat of global warming. The California standard requires strict limits on tailpipe carbon dioxide (CO2), and the only way to achieve them is to drive farther on a gallon of gasoline. More specifically, to meet the standard, vehicles must reach an average of 43 miles per gallon by 2016.

Most auto people will correctly point out that the 43 mpg number threatens the existence of the industry. It's not good environmentalism, they say; it's insanity. Even so, the far more odious element of the California measure is not just its level of stringency. Rather, it is the high cost inherent in distributing certain products to certain states that will drive the price of vehicles into the stratosphere.

Thus far, the California bill has metastasized into a dozen states and is on the bubble in several others. So even as the auto industry spends billions of dollars to adopt new fuel-saving technologies and reduce the weight of vehicles to meet the already-stringent provisions of the new federal law, it must keep its eye on a far more threatening monster: a possible patchwork of states that could lawfully sell only the smallest and lightest of vehicles.

To critics who would say the industry will somehow continue to offer the kinds of vehicles Americans want to drive under the California measure, I would suggest they travel to their local car dealer and ask to see something that gets 43 mpg. Only the smallest gasoline-electric hybrids will even come close -- certainly nothing that can transport the family, the dog and luggage to Aunt Betty's or Yellowstone National Park.

This is precisely what the anti-auto crowd has long sought. Working in Washington, D.C., for 30 years -- both as a representative of a major auto company and as a consultant -- I've seen first hand how these folks work. I've read their literature, seen them in action at congressional hearings and have come to know some of them personally.

Let me be clear: Many are well-meaning, idealistic people working in support of what they feel is a legitimate societal need. Others will stop at nothing to advance their cause. Most have little or no regard for the needs and wants of the motoring public.

Big isn't bad
Over the years, the common denominator of these groups is their distrust and dislike of personal mobility -- primarily because of perceived safety and environmental risks. They became increasingly annoyed as SUVs and pickup trucks took an ever larger share of the market. To them, bigger was definitely bad. They rejected the idea that consumers were drawn to these vehicles for the utility, safety and towing capability they provided.

After a series of failed attempts to hike federal fuel economy standards to unreasonable levels, they turned their attention to the newest issue on the block: global warming. For them, it was perfect.

Living in rural Maryland, I attended some of the hearings last year in Annapolis to consider the California standard. The new Democratic governor -- Martin O'Malley -- embraced the standard and spoke on its behalf. Nearly every other speaker represented a Maryland environmental group and warned that catastrophic global warming would surely wreck the state if the bill wasn't passed.

Anyone who supported a more moderate view was dismissed as being opposed to the "latest science." The few questions asked about the cost and availability of vehicles under the bill were quickly swept aside. The California standard became law in Maryland virtually by acclamation.
What's next? A little common sense would help. We've got a tough new federal fuel economy standard -- one that will stretch the limits of the auto industry's best scientists and engineers. It will cut carbon dioxide tailpipe emissions and improve fuel economy 40 percent. We ought to get on with the job of complying with it.

The far more extreme California carbon dioxide standard was a product of a set of climactic conditions that exist only in that state. To adopt it in various other states, creating a messy patchwork of state fuel economy rules -- one different from another -- has the potential to do lasting damage to the auto industry. It would increase vehicle prices dramatically and curtail availability of some of the most popular cars and trucks.

The states should carefully examine the real consequences of this standard and send it packing -- back to California.

William H. Noack, an automotive industry consultant, was director of General Motors' Washington policy communications office for nearly 20 years.

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Dr. John P. Holdren

Dr. Holdren is currently the Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and director of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy program in the School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

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