ViewPoint: Jim Motavalli on Cars and Carbon

Jim Motavalli
Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli blogs on green matters for The Daily Green and Mother Nature Network and he blogs about cars in the New York Times “Automobiles” section.  He was also a long-time editor for E–the Environmental Magazine, where he continues as a contributing writer. Motavalli combines his passion for autos and environment in his book, FORWARD DRIVE: The Race To Build Clean Cars for the Future. He thinks its time for the auto industry to wake up and smell the coffee. In his Sea Change ViewPoint commentary, he discusses the significance of President Barack Obama’s executive order directing the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider its refusal to grant California a waiver allowing it to regulate greenhouse gases from cars and trucks.

When old-time foresters cut down trees and rolled them down rivers to be processed at the local sawmill, they used to break up masses of logs that had gotten hung up on obstacles or the shoreline. That’s where the popular phrase “logjam” comes from. President Barack Obama broke up one such logjam last week. He signed an executive order directing the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider its refusal to grant California a waiver allowing it to regulate greenhouse gases from cars and trucks.

The order doesn’t automatically grant California’s waiver. Instead, it starts a formal review period, with public comment, that could take several months. But with EPA head Lisa Jackson on record favoring the waiver, its approval seems a foregone conclusion. Environmental activists have hailed it as “the biggest single step we can take to curbing global warming.”

Automakers sounded positive about Obama’s actions–at least in their public statements. General Motors’ Greg Martin said the company is “ready to engage the Obama administration and the Congress.” And Dave McCurdy of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said his group “supports a nationwide program that bridges state and federal concerns.”

But the carmakers complain that if California gets its way, it will be one of three state and federal agencies that have a piece of fuel economy and greenhouse gas regulation. (The others are the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the EPA.) They favor a single federal standard. And they would probably want that standard to be weaker.

They’re not likely to get it. If a federal standard is enacted by the EPA, it could be just as strong–or even stronger–than the California law the carmakers have already filed several suits to stop. (The industry hasn’t dropped its lawsuits, despite repeated rebuffs in court.)

The auto industry hates regulation, especially the kind of fuel-economy mandates that were also part of Obama’s announcement. It repeatedly argues that it builds the cars people want, and for the last 20 years that’s meant gas-guzzling SUVs and trucks. But the public’s tastes are changing, and that’s left Detroit unprepared and losing market share.

The industry is finally recognizing the problem: the recent Detroit Auto Show was a showcase for green cars. Chrysler said it would build several battery-based EVs, and it’s announced an alliance with Fiat to produce fleets of fuel-efficient vehicles. Ford is building a battery car based on the Focus, a battery van, and a plug-in hybrid. GM is about to roll out the Chevrolet Volt, a unique car with a small gas engine that will supply power to electric motors instead of driving the wheels.

Even though gas prices have fallen (and SUV sales are edging up), consumers are still concerned about fuel economy. And they expect energy prices to spike long term. The green-minded Barack Obama is in office for the next four years, and he’s signaling unambiguously that he expects clean, fuel-efficient cars. Nearly everyone expects we’ll be driving electric cars before too long. Given all this, it’s time for automakers to drop their legal fights and start gearing up to produce a new generation of ultra-clean automobiles.