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Study Contradicts Auto Makers’ Emission Claims

Last updated: July 31, 2020 | January 28, 2009 | Thomas Dixon
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As the auto industry decries the White House decision to reconsider California’s push for stricter emission standards, some environmental groups are quick to point out that several automakers have already pledged to meet the proposed guidelines.

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Business strategies submitted to Congress, as part of a December bailout debate, by Ford and General Motors would, if achieved, make the companies compliant with California’s proposed emission reforms — the same changes the companies have opposed for years — according to an analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.

Ford, for example, boasted that it would raise its fuel-economy standards 26 percent above 2005 levels by 2012, and 36 percent above the same baseline by 2015. General Motors, for its part, vowed fleet-wide fuel-efficiencies of 37.3 miles a gallon for cars, and 27.5 mpg for trucks, by 2012. (Chrysler, which did not include fuel-efficiency estimates in its report, was not a subject of the NRDC analysis.)

Both the Ford and GM plans — which surfaced during a December congressional debate over whether the Big Three should receive $34 billion in a taxpayer-funded bailout — set the companies on a pace that “easily” meets California’s proposed reforms, NRDC found.

Lawmakers had requested the strategies as proof that the companies could remain viable if they received the money. It wasn’t granted through Congress, but the Bush administration stepped in later with $17.4 billion in Wall Street bailout funding.

Supporters of tighter emission rules say the business plans are evidence that the automakers would be able to comply with California’s proposed changes, which call for a 30 percent reduction in vehicle emissions by 2016. In light of the sinking economy, they add, the move to more fuel-efficient vehicles might also help them sell more cars.

“They need to hold themselves up to a higher standard for their own survival,” said Roland Hwang, vehicles policy director at the NRDC and author of the analysis. “They can do it, and they’ve committed to it, in fact.”

Eli Hopson, Washington representative of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Clean Vehicles program, conceded that the conversion between emissions and fuel efficiency is not a perfect science, particularly because California’s standards are derived differently than the national gauge. Still, he said, the NRDC report is good indication that California’s goals are achievable without overburdening the automakers.

“If [the companies] don’t reach the California standard,” Hopson said, referring to their viability reports, “they’ll be pretty close.”

The debate was renewed on Monday, when President Barack Obama — in yet another sharp break from his predecessor — announced that he’ll ask the Environmental Protection Agency to review California’s request to waive federal emission rules in favor of stricter state guidelines. State officials say the changes are necessary to rein in pollution and tackle global warming.

The Bush administration had denied California’s waiver in late 2007, arguing that it would create a confusing set of incongruous state standards that would prove harmful to automakers — a view Obama soundly rejected this week.

“This will help us create incentives to develop new energy that will make us less dependent on the oil that endangers our security, our economy and our planet,” Obama said. “Our goal is not to further burden an already struggling industry; it is to help America’s automakers prepare for the future.”

Many congressional Democrats, environmentalists and state officials agree. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) issued a statement calling Obama’s move “a historic win for clean air and for millions of Americans who want more fuel-efficient, environmentally-friendly cars.”

The California Air Resources Board estimates that tailpipe emissions pump more greenhouse gas into the air than any other source — representing 30 percent of the state’s carbon dioxide emissions. Adding to the urgency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a report Monday indicating that it would take at least 1,000 years for the climatic effects of carbon emissions to reverse themselves, even if emissions were halted tomorrow.

Thirteen other states and the District of Columbia have adopted California’s more stringent emissions standards, while four additional states have taken steps to install those standards as well. Together, the states represent roughly 47 percent of the country’s vehicles, Hwang says.

But the waivers have sparked an outcry from the automakers, many Republicans and Michigan Democrats, who continue to argue that the new standards would put undue burdens on an already struggling industry.

GM spokesman Greg Martin dismissed the NRDC report Tuesday, claiming that “their numbers were off.”

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) released a statement Monday saying that approving the waiver will “destroy American jobs at the very time government leaders should be working together to protect and create them.”

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) echoed those sentiments, arguing that “a separate California standard will not only create the “confusing and patchwork set of standards” that President Obama today implied he wanted to avoid, but also, as the California standard is currently drafted, it is discriminatory against U.S.-made vehicles of the same efficiency as the imports.”

Still, Chrysler and General Motors have, combined, accepted more than $17 billion from taxpayers to keep them afloat through March. And Ford, which hasn’t accepted bailout funding, has said it may be forced to do so in 2010 if the economy doesn’t recover. Some observers say the bailouts leave the automakers little room to fight the emission reforms.

A series of toned-down statements from the industry Monday seem to indicate that the companies are well-aware that their powers of persuasion have been vastly diminished. GM, for example, said it “is working aggressively on the products and the advance technologies that match the nation’s and consumers’ priorities to save energy and reduce emissions.”

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents foreign and domestic automakers, said it “supports a nationwide program that bridges state and federal concerns and moves all stakeholders forward.”

“The bailout means that the auto companies work for us now,” said Daniel Becker, who heads the Safe Climate Campaign, an environmental group.

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