The Multinational Monitor


A U T O   I N D U S T R Y

The Auto's Assault on the Atmosphere

by Alexandra Allen

The atmosphere is in jeopardy, thanks in part to the 170 million cars and trucks driven in the United States. Cars, trucks and buses produce roughly one-half of the unhealthy smog that plagues nearly 100 U.S. cities, making motor vehicles the single largest smog source. In addition, motor vehicles produce a quarter of all U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), the major gas contributing to global warming. Potential consequences of global warming, to which the U.S. media and political establishment only recently awoke, include parched farmlands, rising seas and flooded coastal cities.

In Congressional debates over the Clean Air Act and other legislation to address these issues, the auto industry has always minimized the problems, arguing that proposed solutions are unnecessary or unachievable. Congress and the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have repeatedly bowed to auto industry pressure, exerted through well-financed lobbying and targeted campaign contributions. On the few occasions when regulators have stood firm, the auto industry has achieved substantial gains in building cleaner-running, more fuel efficient cars. Yet, the auto's still major contribution to the deterioration of the atmosphere demonstrates that these gains have not been enough.

Clean air history, clean air hoax

When the federal Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, its chief author, then Senator Edmund Muskie, D-Maine, said the bill was designed to ensure that all Americans in all parts of the country should have clean air to breathe within the decade. Congress set a 1977 deadline for cities to meet "ambient air quality standards" for six major pollutants: carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogren oxide, lead, particulates and ozone. The standards were set at an ambient concentration low enough to avoid most adverse health effects.

As a major step toward cutting pollution to meet the new air quality standards, Congress also mandated, over vehement industry opposition, that automakers achieve a 90 percent reduction in tailpipe emissions of hydrocarbons (HC) and carbon monoxide (CO) by 1975, and a 90 percent reduction in nitrogen oxides (NOx) by 1976. The technology to achieve the reductions did not then exist, but Congress intended to push the industry to put resources into technological development.

While the goals of the 1970 Act are often remembered as extraordinarily ambitious, they fell far short of some proposals that were debated at the time. An amendment to phase out the internal combustion engine, in favor of a steam cycle engine or other alternatives, was defeated on the House floor in 1970. In Congressional hearings, at least one witness argued that the air quality standards should be seen as an interim step toward a goal of "zero tolerance for air pollution." Otherwise, the standards would simply become a license to pollute.

In 1977, with the air quality standards uniformly unmet, Congress extended the deadline for compliance to 1982 for some cities, and 1987 for more badly polluted areas. Also in 1977, Congress granted a two-year extension to the auto industry, which claimed that the tailpipe emissions limits which were to have been met by 1975, but had been deferred until 1978, were still unachievable.

Four years later, in an unsuccessful effort to actually roll back tailpipe emissions limits, automakers claimed that the existing requirements were unnecessary to meet air quality standards and that rolling them back would save $300 per car. However, as one auto industry lobbyist admitted at the time, "It's a harder job selling a rollback. Now we're talking about standards that we're meeting that we don't think need to be met." In the face of massive, mobilized public support for clean air, this move failed--notwithstanding the efforts of the Reagan administration and the Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman, John Dingell, D-Mich., who has represented the Detroit area, and the auto industry, in Congress since 1955. Nonetheless, automakers did succeed in getting EPA to waive further tailpipe emissions limits for CO for two years and NOx for four years, beginning in 1981.

Congress's most recent extension of the deadlines for meeting air quality standards came in 1987, after virtually all of the cities that were supposed to meet that deadline failed to do so.

As a result of these delays, extensions and waivers, three out of five U.S. citizens live in cities where the air is still too polluted to meet health standards. In 1988, urban smog reached its worst levels of the decade. In Washington, D.C. that summer, the health standard for ozone smog was violated, on average, every third day.

The auto industry is quick to point out its substantial achievement in reducing emissions of HC and CO from new cars by over 90 percent, and emissions of NOx by 76 percent from uncontrolled levels. The industry seldom acknowledges, however, that even with these gains, which it so persistently fought, motor vehicles continue to make up about half of an "emissions pie" that has shrunk by only about one-third since autos were first equipped with catalytic converters in 1975.

The trouble is that as emissions from individual new cars dropped, the number of cars and trucks, and the extent of auto use, skyrocketed. In addition, emission controls have not been built to last through the life of a typical vehicle, and the standards have not been applied to trucks and buses as they have to passenger cars.

In 1970, there were 98 million cars and trucks in use in the United States. By 1988, that number had risen to 170 million. The total number of miles travelled by motor vehicles in the United States reached 1.9 trillion in 1988, a 72 percent increase from 1970.

The health consequences of the failures of the Clean Air Act and the surge in auto use are great. Ozone smog, which is formed in a chemical reaction between HC and NOx, is an eye-stinging, caustic pollutant that aggravates asthma and other respiratory diseases, inflames the airways even of healthy children and adults and has increasingly been linked to permanent lung damage through irreversible stiffening of lung tissue. "We've got enough evidence now that we think there is a long-term effect attributable to smog," says John Holmes, research director for the California Air Resources Board. "We're convinced this does occur." A recent American Lung Association study reported the "health cost of vehicular air pollution [as] between $4.3 billion and $93.49 billion in 1985" and claimed that as many as 120,000 deaths were attributable to air pollution that year.

Dr. Christopher Green of General Motors Research Labs is not convinced. Green says the health effects of ozone smog are the subject of "considerable overstatement." Green was alone among health experts at a recent Congressional hearing in his assertion that most exposure to ozone and CO merely results in "adaptive physiological effects" which revert back to normal at the end of the exposure, rather than "adverse health effects," which are irreversible.

Clean air 1990

Much of the current debate over reauthorization of the Clean Air Act centers, as it did in 1977, around how much further the deadlines should be extended for the many cities that still fail to meet air quality standards. Even the legislation offered by leading clean air advocate Rep. Henry Waxman, D-CA, proposes deadline extensions of 5 to 17 years, depending on the severity of a city's pollution. Under President Bush's clean air bill, extensions would range from 7 to 22 years, with more cities on the distant end of the schedule. Even if no further extensions are given beyond those dates, compliance with air quality standards will have come more than thirty years after the original deadline date.

When President Bush's clean air bill was introduced in Congress in July 1989 by Rep. Dingell, even Business Week said the bill could use more teeth, particularly in measures applicable to the auto industry.

When that bill's auto controls were strengthened in a compromise agreed to by Dingell and Waxman, GM objected, saying the measure "goes to an extreme . .. [and] will mean huge costs to the consumer and high risks for the industry." The tailpipe emissions standards which are in the Dingell-Waxman compromise would cut new car emissions standards by more than half between the years 2000 and 2003. In a key concession to Dingell and the automakers, however, implementation of the tougher emissions limits is subject to the results of an EPA cost and feasibility study.

A somewhat stronger bill was approved by the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee, but was subsequently watered down in Senate negotiations. The Senate compromise calls for a 39 percent reduction in hydrocarbons and a 60 percent cutback in nitrogen oxides by 1995. A second round of pollution limitations would be enacted by 2004 only if 12 out of 27 "seriously" polluted cities fail to meet health standards by 2000.

Ford has called the standards proposed by Congress technically infeasible, and predicted that "the likelihood is that the industry will have to return to Congress to seek revisions in the requirements."

Companies that manufacture emissions control technology disagree. According to Bruce Bertelsen, Director of the Manufacturers of Emission Controls Association those standards are not beyond reach. Achieving them is largely a matter of refining, rather than redesigning, current catalytic control technologies. Bertelsen recently told a Senate Subcommittee that the task will not require as great a technological advance as the auto industry's conversion from non-catalyst to catalyst equipped cars, which was accomplished in half as much time, from 1970 to 1975.

In addition to reducing tailpipe emissions, there are other changes that auto companies could quickly make to cut air pollution, such as equipping cars to trap gasoline vapors, and providing warranty coverage for pollution control equipment throughout the life of vehicles. But legislative debates on these measures parallel debate on tailpipe controls, and clean air advocates have reason to be pessimistic. Says one environmental lobbyist, "No matter what type of controls you're talking about, unless Congress sets a meaningful target for the automakers, and sticks to it despite their pleas, poisoning of the air that could be prevented, won't be."

Resisting efficiency

More CO2 is released into the Earth's atmosphere from the United States than from any other nation, and motor vehicles are the source of a quarter of U.S. emissions. The U.S. contribution to CO2 emissions and global warming would be greater were it not for the Corporate Average Fuel Economy Program (CAFE) established by Congress in 1975. The CAFE standard mandates an average number of miles per gallon which each manufacturer's new car fleet must meet. For every car that exceeds the CAFE standard, another one must better it by an equal amount.

As they did with emissions standards, automakers fought the establishment of fuel efficiency standards; they said the standards could not be met, sought and got regulatory delays, but finally complied and achieved significant results. In 1974, representatives of Ford told the Senate Commerce Committee that its CAFE proposal "would require a Ford product line consisting of either all sub-Pinto-sized vehicles or some mix of vehicles ranging from a sub-sub-compact to, perhaps, a Maverick. This would place definite hardships on the many Americans who legitimately want and need larger cars to meet their personal requirements." Chrysler made the dire prediction that the bill would "outlaw" most full-size sedans and station wagons, and restrict the industry to producing sub-compact-size cars "or even smaller ones." Their pessimism proved unwarranted.

Under the CAFE program, average fuel economy of new cars has risen from 14 miles per gallon (mpg) in 1974 to 28 mpg in 1988. "If the Department of Transportation had not granted industry petitions for CAFE rollbacks for 1986 through 1989, this improvement would have been even greater," says Bill Magavern, Staff Attorney and Energy Lobbyist with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

The 1990 fuel economy standard, which Ford and GM unsuccessfully pressured Congress to roll back, is 27.5 miles per gallon--the same standard that applied in 1985, before the rollback to 26.0 mpg. Environmentalists and energy conservation advocates are calling on Congress to raise the standard to 45 or 55 mpg for passenger cars by the year 2000 and to 35 mpg for light trucks, which currently are required to average only 21.5 mpg. According to Clarence Ditlow, Executive Director of the Center for Auto Safety, such improvements are feasible.

"In 1981," Ditlow recalls, "the Department of Transportation projected a 48 mpg CAFE standard for 1995 based on improved technology without restricting large car sales. Some of the better technologies include improved transmissions such as the continuously variable one on the Subaru Justy, multi-valve engines, better materials and direct injection diesels."

But GM and Ford dismiss the claim that the fuel economy gains advocated even by the Department of Energy can be made through technological improvements, and assert today, as they did in 1974, that they can comply with higher CAFE standards only by cutting back on production and sales of large cars. "As soon as the technology falls short," says David Kulp, Ford's manager of fuel economy planning and compliance, the auto companies will have to "make up the difference with product restrictions." As makers of many large car models, Ford and GM argue that CAFE standards place an unfair burden on them. "The proposed CAFE target impacts most heavily on domestic manufacturers," Kulp claims, and will give a competitive advantage to Japanese and other foreign automakers, which easily meet CAFE standards through sales of small, highly fuel efficient cars. The foreign companies will increasingly penetrate the large car market, U.S. carmakers say, at a cost to domestic jobs and sales at Ford and GM. The actual experience under the CAFE program, however, indicates that raising fuel efficiency standards has had the opposite impact on U.S. jobs.

According to Ditlow, in order to meet the 27.0 and 27.5 mpg CAFE standards in 1984-85, GM and Ford produced as many small cars as possible domestically. But with the relaxation of CAFE standards, Ford and GM began importing small cars built abroad to the United States because domestically produced small cars were no longer needed to comply with CAFE standards, which apply separately to domestic and import fleets. American workers benefit from the CAFE program, Ditlow asserts, since without it domestic automakers "would virtually become importers of everything but large cars given the projected worldwide glut of auto capacity."

Manipulating efficiency standards

The CAFE program has always set a single mpg level that all carmakers must meet. However, a bill introduced by Sen. Richard Bryan, (D-NV), would require every manufacturer to increase fuel economy of its fleet by 20 percent by 1995 and 40 percent by 2001. For Ford, this would mean going from the company's current 26.4 mpg average to 31.7 by 1995, and 37 mpg by 2001. For Toyota, which already averages 32.6 mpg, it would mean 39.1 mpg by 1995, and 45.6 by 2001.

Japanese automakers strongly oppose such a move which they assert amounts to a non-tariff barrier to keep the Japanese out of highly profitable segments of the car market. "If you want to encourage imports to stay in small cars, you do that by having a percentage increase [in CAFE]," Chrysler's director of legislative affairs recently told the Wall Street Journal.

While U.S. companies see obvious advantages to the Bryan bill, it has not muted their opposition to the size of required increases. Ford has called the 31.7 mpg it would be required to achieve "draconian." GM calls CAFE "a misguided regulatory program" and opposes it altogether.

The difficulties a higher CAFE standard poses for U.S. automakers are largely of their own making, according to some observers. Marc Ledbetter of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy says, "For the last several years, technological improvements that could have been used to improve fuel economy have instead been used to build cars with greater horsepower and faster acceleration." The speedier accelerations of passenger cars manufactured since 1982 have caused about a 6 percent decline in average fuel economy, says Ledbetter.

The disdain of the nation's largest automaker for the CAFE program is summed up by GM President Robert C. Stempel, "I don't want our people spending time trying to think how we can tinker with our products and competitive plans in non-productive ways to reduce the value of our products to consumers just to meet a CAFE standard that creates an advantage for foreign producers without increased energy security."

A wealth of influence

The Big Three of the auto industry are among the largest and wealthiest corporations in the United States. General Motors, Ford and Chrysler ranked first, second and seventh among all U.S. corporations on the basis of total sales in 1988. Ford's profits of $5.3 billion, and GM's $4.8 billion, ranked second and fourth among U.S. companies that year. The automakers' enormous economic power has long been translated into political power in Washington with the help of scores of lobbyists and the lobbyists' entree, campaign cash.

Since 1981, when the federal Clean Air Act became due for reauthorization, General Motors alone has had over 13 lobbyists working to oppose motor vehicle clean-up requirements in Congressional clean air bills. GM paid lawyers and lobbyists more than $1.8 million to fight clean air legislation between 1981 and 1988, according to records on file at the Congressional Office of Records and Registration. By contrast, all the environmental groups in Washington combined have fewer than 10 lobbyists advocating clean air measures that are opposed by hundreds of other companies in addition to GM.

In its quest for access and influence, the auto industry has also made substantial campaign contributions to members of Congress. According to figures gathered by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG), GM, Chrysler and Ford's Political Action Committees (PACs) gave Congressional candidates over $700,000, $630,000 and $470,000, respectively, between 1981 and 1988. Some 150 industry PACs opposed to clean air legislation gave Congressional candidates a total of $23 million during that period, according to U.S. PIRG.

In a vote last fall, an amendment to regulate toxic air pollutants emitted by cars and trucks was defeated in the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment. The committee members who sided with the automakers in opposing this amendment received nearly four times as much in total industry PAC contributions as the amendment's supporters. "With Representatives seeking to raise an average of $3000 each week for campaign war chests, a lobbyist from a company that has helped fill the coffers gains access and influence in Congress," says U.S. PIRG clean air lobbyist Zoe Schneider.

Outside of Washington, the automakers also participate in multimillion dollar "outreach" projects through an alliance of businesses known as the "Clean Air Working Group." The Working Group, which is decidedly anti-clean air, has conducted national publicity campaigns with misleading and false information about the impact of current and proposed clean air laws. Clean Air Working Group promotions have predicted a "quiet death for businesses across the country" if clean air legislation is passed.

In addition to effective tactics for reaching and influencing the 435 members of Congress as a whole, the auto industry has in Congress a few close individual allies, none closer or better placed than Chairman Dingell. As chair of a committee which handles over half of all House legislation, Dingell is considered by many to be one of the two or three most powerful Representatives in Congress. Dingell assumed the chairmanship in 1981 after prevailing in a heated battle to expand the committee's jurisdiction, and has since used the powers of that position to consolidate his control over the committee.

Though he was unsuccessful in his 1981-82 attempt to roll-back auto emissions standards in the Clean Air Act, Dingell successfully thwarted bills in his committee to strengthen the Clean Air Act for the next seven years, using stalling tactics and his considerable influence over a number of junior committee members.

But Dingell's influence in the committee is not matched on the floor, and some members of the House have begun to signal that they are tired of the stall on clean air. In Congress's most recent vote to extend the deadline for cities to meet air quality standards, in December of 1987, Dingell fought for an 18-month extension. Hoping to force Congress to deal substantively with the smog issue before the November 1988 elections, Waxman and the environmentalists supported an eight- month extension, and prevailed by a resounding 95-vote margin.

In September 1988, when it was clear that the Energy and Commerce Committee would not send clean air legislation to the floor that year, a majority of the members of the House took the unusual step of signing a letter to Dingell and the Energy and Commerce Committee's Ranking Republican, Rep. Norm Lent, calling for strong, comprehensive clean air legislation to be reported out by the committee and brought to the House floor for a vote.

In 1990, with a President interested in passing some clean air legislation, the committee stalling of past years will be difficult if not impossible to maintain, as Dingell, the lead sponsor of the Bush clean air bill, seems to have acknowledged. For Congress to enact anything more than palliative auto cleanup and efficiency measures, however, it will have to depart from the pattern of accommodation to industry that has undercut the Clean Air Act and the CAFE program. It is more likely that Congress will merely sanction half-hearted efforts at energy efficiency and write another chapter in the clean air hoax, at a high price to the public's health and the Earth's atmosphere.

Alexandra Allen is an attorney with the Center for Auto Safety. Previously, she lobbied on the Clean Air Act with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

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