California and 13 other states are set to impose the first U.S. limits on vehicle emissions of carbon dioxide, linked to global warming. While the Bush administration has put the rules on hold, the two presidential candidates, Democratic Senator Barack Obama and Republican Senator John McCain, say they would clear the states to put them into effect.
Reducing carbon dioxide emissions to the level set by California would raise average fuel economy to about 43 miles per gallon by 2020, according to the California Air Resources Board, the state's emissions regulator. Automakers' costs would jump $13 billion a year starting in 2016, when the rules would take full effect, based on an industry-commissioned analysis.
``If the states win, the country will import significantly less fuel and there will be significantly less greenhouse gas emissions,'' says Lee Schipper, emeritus senior associate at the World Resources Institute's Center for Sustainable Transport. People ``will look back and thank the big states for taking the lead in the absence of leadership from Washington.''
Congress voted last year to raise average fuel economy to 35 mpg from the 27.5 mpg in effect since 1985. While that would have the effect of lowering carbon dioxide emissions, the California standard would result in a 40 percent greater reduction, according to the state clean-air board.
40 Billion Gallons
The Environmental Protection Agency barred California from putting its standards into effect for new autos going on sale in the 2009 model year, starting in October. California, 16 other states and three cities are suing to reverse the ruling.
Based on the original timetable that the rules would be phased in starting this year, gasoline use would fall by 40 billion gallons through 2020, estimated Roland Hwang, an analyst at the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council. U.S. drivers consumed 141 billion gallons last year.
Automakers have tried before and failed in court to stop the states from implementing carbon-reduction rules, losing two cases last year. If the new president tells the EPA to approve the California standards, the industry may go to court again.
During a six-year campaign, the Sierra Club and other environmental advocacy groups bypassed Washington and focused on state legislatures. The effort included a pitch on a San Diego airport tarmac to convince a California lawmaker to back a measure to limit emissions of carbon dioxide. It also involved a challenge to the automakers on their home turf in Detroit and a driving tour suggesting that Jesus might disapprove of fuel- wasting automobiles.
Automakers Can't Afford
California's plan to cut vehicle carbon emissions is an ``experiment'' that automakers can't afford because ``they don't have the flexibility,'' says Dave McCurdy, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents General Motors Corp., Toyota Motor Corp., Ford Motor Co. and seven other companies. Automakers referred requests for comments to McCurdy.
Meeting the states' standards would increase costs for tooling and new vehicle development by $11 billion to $13 billion annually for the eight largest automakers combined, according to an analysis for the alliance by Tom Austin of Sierra Research Inc. in Sacramento.
Companies included in the study were GM, Ford, Chrysler LLC, Volkswagen AG, Nissan Motor Co., Hyundai Motor Co., Honda Motor Co. and Toyota, Austin said. Automakers typically spend $1 billion to build a car factory or design a new vehicle.
The U.S. automakers have announced plans to eliminate 115,000 factory jobs as $4-a-gallon gasoline shrank demand for large trucks and sport-utility vehicles. Detroit-based GM last week outlined a plan to cut annual costs by $10 billion.
Campaign `a Factor'
The environmentalists' campaign is working, and ``it's a factor'' in an industry response that now includes lobbying campaigns to block Florida, Minnesota and four other states from adopting California standards, McCurdy says.
``For something as large and overarching'' as cutting emissions blamed for global warming, ``it has to be done at a national, if not international level,'' McCurdy says.
Under the U.S. Constitution, national policy is made in Washington. Automakers have long had the political clout there, through lobbying and campaign donations, to stall increases in fuel-economy requirements.
California, with 33.5 million cars -- the most cars and the most smog -- won the right under the 1970 Clean Air Act to set emissions standards tougher than federal rules by obtaining a waiver from the EPA. Once it does so, other states can choose to follow the stricter California rules or comply with federal regulations.
The state has won 50 waivers in the past three decades. California's previous standards on vehicle emissions such as carbon monoxide and oxides of nitrogen and sulfur have been adopted in the U.S. and internationally.
Environmental activists reasoned that if California could be persuaded to seek cuts in carbon dioxide emissions, they could indirectly force reductions in fuel consumption, according to Daniel Becker, at the time a Washington lobbyist for the San Francisco-based Sierra Club. Other states might follow, and the automakers' sway in Washington would become irrelevant.
The Sierra Club and its allies decided to abandon Washington and press their California strategy soon after George W. Bush became president in 2001. He named the former head of the auto industry's lobbying group, Andrew Card, as his chief of staff.
Becker, 52, says he and Carl Pope, 63, the group's executive director, mapped out a plan to encircle the automakers. Becker had fought for almost a decade in Washington to raise mileage standards and failed.
The idea was to ``create a strategic problem for the auto industry because they'd be forced to fight fires in various states,'' says Russell Long, a San Francisco environmentalist who led lobbying in California.
California targeted vehicles because they account for as much as 40 percent of carbon emissions in the state, says Barry Rabe, a Brookings Institution analyst and professor of environmental policy at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
If California ``ignores the vehicle sector, there's no way it can'' reach its goal of cutting greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020, he says.
Environmentalist Long, now 52, founder of the nonprofit Bluewater Network, started work in early 2001 on a bill that would limit vehicle emissions. Since each gallon of gasoline a car burns emits about 19.6 pounds of carbon dioxide, standards requiring lower emissions also force increased mileage.
Redford, Beatty Sign On
By mid-2002, Long had assembled a cast of activists including Hollywood actors Robert Redford and Warren Beatty and database-software entrepreneur Bob Epstein. They built support for a carbon-emissions bill sponsored by Fran Pavley, a high school history teacher turned legislator.
After several failed attempts to pass the measure, on May 15, 2002, ``my 50th birthday, I skipped my party to fly to San Diego,'' Epstein says. There on the tarmac, ``I met this undecided lawmaker and convinced him to vote for'' the bill.
The legislator was Democratic Assemblyman Juan Vargas, who reversed his position and cast the pivotal vote in July to pass the proposal, Pavley said. The 41-30 margin was a bare majority in the 80-member Assembly.
If applied nationwide, the California standards would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 1,283 million metric tons by 2020, according to the California Air Resources Board. The federal law passed last year would lower carbon dioxide output by 912 million metric tons over the same period.
The following month, Becker traveled to the Cobo Conference Center in downtown Detroit, four blocks from GM headquarters, to announce a three-pronged attack. Besides lobbying to change state emissions laws, the group would try to shame automakers for offering low-mileage vehicles while urging them to expand use of technologies such as gas-electric hybrids.
The Sierra Club took to ridiculing gas guzzlers. GM's launch of the Hummer led to the Web site hummerdinger.com. Becker also began courting religious leaders to attract conservative motorists, often associated with driving sport utility vehicles and pick-up trucks.
That November a coalition of religious groups presented auto executives a letter calling for improved fuel efficiency. In April 2003, the Reverend Jim Ball of the Evangelical Environmental Network in Suwanee, Georgia, and his wife, Kara, embarked on a ``What Would Jesus Drive?'' tour from Texas to Pennsylvania in the then-newly launched 48 mpg Toyota Prius hybrid.
Expanding the Battleground
Becker and Pope, meanwhile, were expanding the battleground to a dozen new states, with the help of clean-air allies including the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Pennsylvania's passage of the California standard in 2006 was a turning point because it brought ``a hard-hat, blue-collar, steel-tipped boot type of approach to environmental issues,'' says Kathleen McGinty, secretary of the state's Department of Environmental Protection.
The pro-environment movement had Washington surrounded. Representative John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat and a champion of the auto industry since the first mileage law was passed in 1978, acknowledged the new political landscape.
``Ladies and gentlemen, Hannibal is at the gates,'' he told chief executives of GM, Ford, Chrysler and Toyota at a March 14, 2007, hearing on gas mileage rules. ``The old debate is no longer sufficient,'' he said, urging companies to embrace higher mileage standards. They did so in the law Congress voted in December.
After that energy measure passed, the EPA told California the state couldn't set its own limits because the federal standard was sufficient. In April California sued to force the agency to issue a waiver.
``If the courts do not overturn'' the EPA ruling, ``I will after I am elected president,'' Obama said last year. His campaign last week said his position hasn't changed and he is a co-sponsor of a Senate proposal to reverse the decision.
Congress is considering legislation that would set carbon- emission limits for all industries. Companies exceeding allocations would have to buy credits from those polluting less. Such a cap-and-trade measure would ease the pressure on car companies by making other polluters achieve carbon reductions.
``As president, John McCain will act quickly to enact a federal cap-and-trade program, which would get states out of the business of regulating carbon emissions,'' spokesman Taylor Griffin said this week in an e-mail. ``In the interim, he supports California's request for a waiver from the EPA.''
Dingell, 82, says his goal is to ``avoid creating a vast morass of different and conflicting state and federal regulations.''
A decision by the next president to let California and other states set vehicle emissions standards, if backed by the courts, would be the fastest way to cut greenhouse gases from autos because state-laws are already in place, the Brookings Institution's Rabe says.
Becker, who left the Sierra Club last September to start the nonprofit Safe Climate Campaign, said he continues to lobby for higher mileage standards because ``the biggest step you could take to curb global warming is to make a car go further on a gallon of gas.''