California Dreaming: The Reckoning on Climate

California's vehicle emissions laws are creating headaches for automakers. (Photo: Luke Jones [CC by 2.0]/Flickr)

With the Bush administration out of office, the big logjam has burst and both Congress and the White House are pushing forward vigorously to enact programs that were stonewalled or blocked. One of President Obama’s first directives to the EPA was to reconsider the Bush-era refusal to grant California its long-sought waiver to regulate greenhouse gasses from vehicles. The hearings are underway.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to get technical on you here. This is really important. California is a huge part of the auto market all by itself, but 13 other states plus the District of Columbia follow its every move on regulating auto emissions. So it’s huge if cars produced for those states have to meet strict climate standards. It basically means improving fuel economy, because that’s how to control greenhouse gasses.

Needless to say, the auto industry is fighting this. Today, the National Automobile Dealers Association attacked with an array of arguments. For one, it said, the California law would create a “patchwork” of state and federal laws, and auto companies won’t know which way to turn. And consumers will be able to cross state borders and buy the big gas guzzlers they want anyway.

“Let me give you an example,” said Andy Coblenz of NADA. “I live in Maryland and work in Virginia. Suppose I want a large Ford sedan and my dealer in Maryland, a California-compliant state, has sold all his allotment and can’t get more because Ford has stopped shipping big cars. Well, I can just go to Virginia, a non-California state, and buy it there. Consumers will find a way to get the product they want, and if they do it doesn’t help the environment at all.”

The auto industry is repeating this argument and many more in lawsuits it is pursuing, despite several legal setbacks, in multiple states. “They’re suing us with our own money,” said David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council, referring to the taxpayer-funded bailout that is keeping General Motors and Chrysler alive.

Doniger argues that the auto companies actually know that oil prices will eventually go back up, and that’s why they’ve suddenly gotten religion with electric and plug-in hybrid cars. “The California law is not a liability, it’s an asset to help them build the small, fuel-efficient cars that people actually want, not the gas guzzlers they wouldn’t buy last summer. They need a business plan that’s viable, and this is the one.”