Shhhh! The Auto Industry's Secret Meetings

The Aspen Institute is trying to broker a deal between automakers and environmentalists. (Photo: Stuart Isett/Fortune Brainstorm TECH [CC by ND-2.0]/Flickr)

It was like something out of the movies. A series of secret meetings in Los Angeles, the most recent January 28, between ailing carmakers, state air regulators and environmental groups, all brought together by the Aspen Institute, a prestigious think tank. Anything said was off the record, giving these frequent protagonists a chance to spar with each other without fear of media disclosure.

I was the first to disclose the meetings—which have been going on since last fall—on the New York Times “Wheels” blog. I think the meetings are actually a good idea, because these parties mostly flail away at each other in the media. Carmakers have said nearly every safety or environmental innovation would bankrupt the industry. Fighting the introduction of catalytic converters (now on every car sold in the U.S.), a GM official said in 1972 that if the emission-fighting devices were not delayed, “It is conceivable that complete stoppage of the entire production could occur.”

The main topic of at least the latest meeting is President Obama’s order directing the EPA to review its refusal to grant California a waiver to regulate tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks. With EPA head Lisa Jackson’s full support, the state regulations are now very likely to go into force, and greens fear that the regulators will cave and the secret meetings will end in an agreement to water them down. It’s not just one state we’re talking about here; the California standards are also followed by 13 other states and the District of Columbia.

The carmakers want one single federal standard, and obviously they hope it will be weaker than California’s. But Mary Nichols, who heads California’s influential Air Resources Board, seemed determined last week that a tough state law remain in place. California will only back down if any new federal standard is even stronger, she said.

The meeting participants, Aspen disclosed after my stories appeared, are the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Toyota and the California Air Resources Board.

One global warming activist who has not attended the meetings, Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign at the Center for Auto Safety, criticized the secretive nature of the negotiations and questioned the carmakers’ motives in attending them. “It’s heartwarming that the automakers have added backroom negotiations to their menu of lawsuits and misrepresentation of their product as clean,” Becker said. “With billions of dollars in taxpayer money, the auto companies should get out of the courtroom and the backroom and start working for us now.”