Despite environmental governance to the contrary, Clean Cars are our Future

By March 10, 2020 No Comments

Auto companies, like Ford, are making electric vehicles the public wants to drive, like the new all-electric Mustang Mach-E

By Larry Schweiger
Pittsburgh Current Columnist

To clean Pittsburgh’s air, the 2030 District Initiative called for a 50 percent reduction in transportation emissions from commuters. This goal may be achievable only with the full implementation of 2012 Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards that Trump is gutting.

When an $8 trillion housing bubble burst in 2008, it caused GM and Chrysler to face complete financial failure. As president of the National Wildlife Federation, I stood with GM’s CEO, Rick Wagoner supporting his request for a bailout. I was the only environmental leader to do so. I am sure others thought I was crazy. Still, we had been working through the BlueGreen Alliance, and with United Autoworkers, advocating for the administration to develop groundbreaking standards to nearly double fuel efficiency. I knew how important it was to keep GM and the other automakers alive to lead this transition. I also believed we need to work with the labor unions to create and maintain good-paying jobs while the industry transitions to clean transportation. 

We were proposing strong Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards to cut auto fuel usage and carbon emissions by 50%. After the bailout, EPA and NHTSA issued a proposed rule that would increase fuel-efficient and reduce tailpipe emissions to a fleet average of 54.5 miles per gallon by the model year 2025. The proposed rule received broad support from Rick Wagoner and the other automobile manufacturers, organized labor, environmental advocates, and even some national security organizations. 

Bob King, president of the United Auto Workers and I were the lead witnesses in the EPA and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration hearing held in Detroit, Michigan. We estimated that the entire program would save consumers more than $1.7 trillion at the pump. The proposed rule would trigger many innovations leading to energy conservation at scale. It would also cause a long-overdue renewal to an industry that has stagnated by ending the internal combustion engine that has outlived its usefulness to society. This standard would save vehicle owners and operators $50 billion in fuel costs by reducing oil consumption by 530 million barrels. It would decrease carbon pollution emissions by 270 million metric tons over the life of vehicles produced in the 2014–2018 model years. A panel of the three American automaker CEOs followed us and supported the proposed regulations to create certainty in the market, improve fuel economy, and reduce greenhouse gases.

With Trump taking over our government, the fight for clean cars is far from over. On Aug. 2, 2018, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and EPA jointly proposed rolling back the 2012 the CAFE rule by freezing standards at 2020 levels through 2026. This action was taken despite a Federal review in January 2017 that found that the auto rules were working and that “the auto industry is thriving and meeting the standards more quickly than required.” This rule change ended requirements that caused automakers to build cleaner hybrids and electric vehicles. The auto industry was exceeding the annual reduction targets at a very reasonable cost. Trump also plans to end subsidies for electric vehicles, and for other renewable energy sources. So these decisions like the rest of his bad environmental decisions were unnecessary and irresponsible.

In a blog post, Bill Ford, Executive Chairman, and Jim Hackett, President, and CEO of Ford Motor Company said, “Today, our planet faces increasing challenges, the implications of which are profound: greater congestion in cities, the rise of human population, the climate crisis, and all its implications. The cost of believing it is not real is just too high … We support increasing clean car standards through 2025, and are not asking for a rollback.” 

It was a completely different story with the oil industry that lobbied for the rule change. A New York Times investigative piece by Hiroko Tabuchi revealed that Marathon Petroleum teamed up with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a secretive policy group financed by corporations including the Koch network to lobby for the rule changes. ALEC also passed a resolution describing CAFE rules as “a relic of a disproven narrative of resource scarcity”, and says “unelected bureaucrats” shouldn’t dictate the cars Americans drive.” 

Oil interests have encouraged the Trump administration to walk back other critical environmental protections despite the impact on the climate crisis and energy security, forcing Americans to return to the unnecessary fuel consumption of the past. The rollback satisfies the oil industry’s desire to sell more gasoline, but California and other states concerned with polluted air and climate change are fighting the changes. All of this contrived uncertainty is not helpful to the auto industry, to workers, or consumers. 

Trump’s CAFE decision has real consequences. Watching the pain on the faces of displaced Lordstown workers who were known for building compact cars including Vega, Monza, Cavalier, Cobalt, and ending with the Cruze. I remembered the conversation I had with GM’s CEO. Rick Wagoner told me, “I don’t know whether to build a Hummer or a Volt.” He welcomed the fuel efficiency standards because it avoids automakers chasing a car market driven by the widely variable price of gasoline. It may be counter-intuitive, but by having CAFE standards helps the industry respond to a consistent signal and has allowed the industry to move faster towards clean electric vehicles.

In a remarkable gift to the auto industry and to the world, Elon Musk announced on June 12, 2014, “Given that annual new vehicle production is approaching 100 million per year and the global fleet is approximately 2 billion cars, it is impossible for Tesla to build electric cars fast enough to address the carbon crisis…Yesterday, there was a wall of Tesla patents in the lobby of our Palo Alto headquarters. That is no longer the case. They have been removed in the spirit of the open-source movement, for the advancement of electric vehicle technology… We believe that Tesla, other companies making electric cars, and the world would all benefit from a common, rapidly-evolving technology platform.” 

Car buyers are not waiting for Washington. Tesla delivered 367,500 cars last year and is building two new factories to meet growing world demands. Witnessing Tesla’s stock price surge, other auto manufacturers have gotten the message and see the market changing fast. The surge of consumer demand for electrification has finally come to cars, SUVs, and pickup trucks as batteries have improved dramatically. 

Options for new electric vehicles are increasing in number and variety. The Chevy Volt, the plug-in hybrid sold 150,000 units over the past seven years, will now be a Bolt, which is fully electric. Ford is producing a Mustang muscle-car; it calls Mach-E as an all-electric crossover. A slew of new electric cars is coming to the market in 2020. Jaguar XJ Electric2, Mazda MX-30, BMW has its i4, Mercedes-Benz is producing its G-Class Electric, EQC, and EQS models. Other electric cars, including Nissan Ariya and Leaf, Mini Cooper SE, Mini Electric Hardtop, Polestar 2, Rivian R1T and R1S, and the Porsche Macan EV. As more EV models arrive, consumers will have a better chance to find one that fits their needs. Electric trucks are also on their way, including Tesla’s Cybertruck, Ford F-150 electric-truck, and a new company operating out of Youngstown, Ohio will be producing the Lordstown Endurance, an electric truck

Cars and trucks cause nearly a quarter of Pittsburgh’s air quality issues and the pollution is much worse along busy arteries particularly with diesel exhaust. We all ought to be driving 21st-century electric cars and trucks powered by wind and solar to clean Pittsburgh’s air and curb climate pollution. The days of the internal combustion engine and big oil are numbered. The only question now is in the absence of the CAFÉ standards, how fast will we move away from the outdated engines, and move to electric motors powered by clean energy sources?

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