The rebel: Honda
While most of the auto industry is in lockstep in opposition to more government limitations on fuel consumption, Honda is something of a rebel. It is the only automaker that supports tougher fuel economy standards as part of the effort to combat global warming.
Ed Cohen, vice president of government relations for Honda North America Inc., said his company thinks government should curb greenhouse gases from cars and trucks by using the CAFE program.
And the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, a trade association for Honda, Nissan, Toyota and 11 other import-brand companies, disclosed to Automotive News in late January that it has moved close to that position over the past couple of months.
The distinction: It says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which runs the CAFE program, should use its existing authority to determine whether higher standards are technologically and economically feasible. If they are, then those bureaucratically mandated standards, rather than any action by Congress, should be considered the auto industry's contribution to the global warming issue.
Mike Stanton, a former longtime lobbyist for the Detroit 3 and then the alliance, became AIAM president last year. In late January, he told Automotive News that the import-brand automakers think climate change is a public policy issue that needs to be addressed, and "we want to participate in the solution to it."
Stanton said that if regulators use their authority under the law to set "maximum feasible" fuel economy standards, "that really is our contribution to reducing greenhouse gases from our vehicles."
Stanton said the organization's new position tries to make the point that fuel consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions are inextricably linked. And if CAFE standards are raised, government should not try additional controls on vehicles.
"You can't hit us twice on the same issue," he said.
In Asia and Europe, automotive executives are more likely than their U.S. counterparts to acknowledge the role of vehicles in global warming.
Said Katsuaki Watanabe, president of Toyota Motor Corp.: "Of course, I believe the automobile has made some contribution to this global-warming phenomenon. But right now what's lacking is this global-level root-cause analysis."
People certainly contribute to greenhouse gases, said Frederic Saint-Geours, managing director of PSA/Peugeot-Citroen, "from the mere fact of breathing to driving cars."
Under a voluntary program, vehicles sold in Europe achieved a 13 percent reduction in average CO2 emissions from 1995 to 2004. But automakers appear unlikely to meet new targets for 2008-09, and the European Union is considering mandatory controls (see story, Page 64).
GM's lawyerly approach
GM Vice President Beth Lowery, the company's chief environmental officer, is a lawyer, not an engineer or scientist. And she approaches the climate question with lawyerly caution.
She declines to acknowledge that cars and trucks contribute to global warming, and hers is a position that comes from the top.
CEO Wagoner told Automotive News his company can contribute to "an avoidance of the problem" without having to decide whether human activity is involved.
Some legal experts expect companies that emit greenhouse gases to become targets of class-action lawsuits. In September, California's attorney general sued the six largest automakers for climate-related damage that he says their products are causing.
Lowery said it's important that someone pursues the scientific answers to why global temperatures appear to be rising, but it's not the job of GM or the automobile industry.
"Our view is we have a certain role to play, which is to make sure that we are providing the technologies that can reduce CO2 emissions," she said.
"From a business plan standpoint, our job is to bring cars and trucks to the market that reduce CO2 emissions, and that's why we have our whole advanced technology plan."
The plan encompasses new technologies and alternative fuels. It is aimed not only at climate but also at national energy security and making personal transportation available for people all over the world in sustainable ways, Lowery said.
The company is wary of a single regulatory scheme and thinks more innovation will occur if companies are free from regulation and thus free to find ways to reduce emissions voluntarily, she said.
Despite that claim, GM's technological advances to improve fuel efficiency, like those of most automakers, have gone primarily into making vehicles more powerful - either faster or capable of carrying more weight or both - annual government reports repeatedly show (see chart, Page 54).
Lowery's remarks - and GM's sudden interest in plug-in electric hybrid vehicles - suggest an evolution of the company's recent position that hydrogen fuel cells soon will take vehicles out of the environmental equation.
It's the position that has been touted frequently and passionately by Larry Burns, who has been GM's vice president for r&d since 2000. He and others at GM have said repeatedly that they will have a commercially viable fuel cell vehicle by 2010.
Said Lowery: "There's going to be a long time where you're going to have various technologies in the marketplace, and various fuels."
Though no believer in global warming, Lutz has become a booster of GM's program for a plug-in electric car whose battery is charged by an electrical socket or a small gasoline motor. At the Detroit auto show, the Chevrolet Volt concept got a lot of good publicity.
"It may take five to 10 years to bring the Volt to market," said a Washington Post story. "But what is important is that GM, still the biggest car company in the world, has committed to spending billions of dollars to develop the Volt and similar electric vehicles."
But Lutz's enthusiasm isn't from fear of global warming. Because more and more consumers and government officials are concerned about the issue, Lutz concluded, "We have to behave as if it were real."
The government role
As Webber of the auto alliance suggests, his views and those of many other industry leaders on global warming paralleled those of the Bush administration - until the president called for higher fuel economy standards in his State of the Union address.
The administration has encouraged businesses to undertake voluntary reductions of greenhouse-gas "intensity" - that is, emissions, adjusted for economic growth. It does not mean an absolute reduction in emissions.
With the auto industry's support, Congress kept fuel economy standards frozen from the 1996 model year until 2005, when modest increases for light trucks took effect. The truck standard will rise from 20.7 mpg in 2004 to about 24 mpg by 2011. But the car standard has stayed at 27.5 mpg since 1990. (CAFE numbers are higher than the "real-world" estimates from the EPA.)
With approval from Congress, the administration has expanded global-warming studies and spent taxpayer money on research that could lead to reduced emissions. Programs include FreedomCAR.
With the Detroit 3, suppliers, universities and national labs as participants, FreedomCAR is researching hydrogen fuel cells, which make electricity by stripping electrons from hydrogen atoms and directing them to a motor or battery. The remaining hydrogen ions combine with oxygen from the air to make water as the only emission.
The federal government spends more than $150 million a year on FreedomCAR and related vehicle technology programs. The funding is comparable to the amounts spent for the Clinton-era Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, which was supposed to lead to affordable 80-mpg family sedans by 2004. It didn't.
In addition, the U.S. Department of Energy has issued a plan for developing and sharing advanced technology over the next 100 years.
And the administration has formed, with Pacific Rim countries, a partnership for sharing technology to combat climate change.
But critics note that the president rejected the Kyoto global-warming treaty and say the administration has ignored, sugar-coated and sometimes suppressed scientists' pessimistic predictions about global warming.
Hansen, of NASA, has complained that political appointees tried to keep him from speaking freely in public about his research.
And the Union of Concerned Scientists says the administration "has consistently sought to undermine the public's understanding of the view held by the vast majority of climate scientists that human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases are making a discernible contribution to global warming."
Among the administration's transgressions, the group alleges, are improper manipulations of EPA reports.
States getting involved
Some state officials view the federal effort as too little, too slow. Standing out among them is former teacher Fran Pavley. As a California state legislator, Pavley sponsored the bill that has become the automobile industry's biggest climate-change headache.
It led to the 2004 regulations requiring the average vehicle sold in California to emit 30 percent less greenhouse gases by 2016. So far 10 other states have copied the rules, and more are considering them.
In effect, the rules require automakers to sell vehicles that burn 30 percent less fuel. But California officials characterized the plan as a clean-air program, not a fuel economy program.
That's an important distinction: Although states can adopt tougher clean-air rules, federal law says fuel economy is the responsibility of the federal government.
In late 2004, the automobile industry filed a federal lawsuit against the California regulations. The plaintiffs included some individual California dealers; GM and DaimlerChrysler AG, individually; and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. The Association of International Automobile Manufacturers joined later.
The industry's principal claim is that the state, through the California Air Resources Board, is illegally assuming federal authority to regulate fuel economy.
A trial scheduled for Jan. 30 has been postponed pending the outcome of a global-warming case at the U.S. Supreme Court. A separate trial on a parallel lawsuit is possible in Vermont.
Whatever the outcomes, appeals seem certain.
And in January, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger directed that rules be adopted requiring that vehicles use fuels with reduced carbon content, a likely boost for ethanol.
The climate case at the Supreme Court was brought by a group of states and environmental groups asking that the EPA be directed to use the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from cars and trucks. Automakers and the National Automobile Dealers Association joined in opposition to regulation.
Arguments were heard Nov. 29. A decision is expected in the first half of this year.
In their brief to the Supreme Court, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and NADA argued that even if the EPA were to regulate emissions from new U.S. vehicles, "it is purely speculative whether such regulation would spur a large enough reduction in worldwide greenhouse gases to affect the composition of the Earth's atmosphere and avoid the injuries predicted" by states and environmental groups.
The industry's principal argument is that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant that can be regulated by federal clean air law.
On the cusp of change?
State actions, court cases, mounting scientific evidence and growing interest by business and the public are contributing to the pressure that Claussen of the Pew Center says will force the federal government to act, perhaps by 2009.
She made that prediction even before Democrats took power in the November election.
Some industry lobbyists acknowledge privately that they feel the pressure growing. They note that perceived presidential front-runners McCain and Clinton favor federal action on global warming.
And U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut - who co-sponsored with McCain legislation to create a cap-and-trade program - is emboldened by his victory as an independent.
To proponents of change, the stakes are high.
Said Hansen of NASA: "If human beings follow a business-as-usual course, continuing to exploit fossil fuel resources without reducing carbon emissions or capturing and sequestering them before they warm the atmosphere, the eventual effects on climate and life may be comparable to those at the time of mass extinctions.
"Life will survive, but it will do so on a transformed planet. For all foreseeable human generations, it will be a far more desolate world than the one in which civilization developed and flourished during the past several thousand years."
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And how, in hindsight, does the situation look to Harry Pearce, author of the GM's global-warming policy a decade ago?
Not much different.
Pearce, now 64, left GM in 2001 to run Hughes Electronics Corp. He's now the nonexecutive chairman of Nortel, the Canadian telecommunications company; and of MDU Resources, an oil, gas and electric utility.
In a 1998 speech to the Automotive News World Congress, Pearce made a passionate call for dramatic improvements in fuel economy, in part because of global warming. He
wasn't ready to concede that it was a bona fide scientific reality, but he said cutting fuel consumption made sense as a precautionary measure.
He also said the government shouldn't mandate those improvements.
And in a recent interview Pearce reiterated that although there still are unanswered questions about global warming, it makes sense to take some action, just in case.
But he wasn't surprised that fleet fuel economy hasn't changed since his time at GM.
"We've known for a long time that consumers aren't going to pay more for environmentally better vehicles," he said.
He notes that GM and others are investing in alternative technologies. And he sees a future when GM or another automaker creates the first economical fuel cell vehicle and when nuclear power will provide the energy to make plenty of hydrogen.
As for Rick Wagoner, he's basking in the good publicity that the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid generated for GM at the Detroit auto show. And in a speech last month to the Automotive News World Congress, he committed GM to leadership in electric vehicles and urged - much as Pearce did nine years earlier - government cooperation in developing alternative-fuel vehicles.
GM's lobbyists in Washington will be aggressive in seeking that help, for battery research and for developing an infrastructure for ethanol.
But they'll also be riding herd on the energy bills that seek to raise CAFE or otherwise force a reduction in fuel consumption.
Richard Truett contributed to this report
You may e-mail Harry Stoffer at [email protected]
You may e-mail Peter Brown at [email protected]