Electric car decision: Guv again favors big business
April 15, 2008
Shock and indignation from many sides greeted a late-March decision by the California Air Resources Board to scale back drastically its longstanding zero emission vehicle (ZEV) demand on the worlds leading auto manufacturers.Rather than having to get 58,000 ZEVs onto state roads by 2014, as previous rules would have required, now the big companies will only have to build and sell 7,500 by then. Affected are General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, Honda and Nissan.We are disappointed, said Spencer Quong of the Union of Concern Scientists. Its a disappointment, chimed in Jennifer Holmes-Gen of the American Lung Assn. of California. They could have sent a strong message. The numbers are important, and the numbers should be higher.Indeed, the ARB did send a strong message. But one very different from any it ever sent before. For almost 50 years, whether the governors who appointed them were conservative Republicans like Ronald Reagan or liberal Democrats like Jerry Brown, ARB members steadfastly stuck to their guns and never succumbed to pressure from automakers who invariably resist new smog controls.But now, the ARB has caved to the car companies, which claimed they could not make ZEVs either electric or hydrogen-powered cars commercially viable by 2014. Instead, they proposed building more hybrids and adding plug-in hybrids to the mix. Ironically, the auto companies only began building hybrids when California demanded major smog reductions and other states quickly followed. Now hybrids are major profit centers, with Toyota, for one, planning by 2010 to offer a hybrid version of every model it sells. Of course, before hybrids became the vogue, the carmakers also said they couldnt make them, the same thing they claimed before making first smog control devices and later catalytic converters standard equipment on cars almost everywhere in the world.It may not be constructive to send the message that California smog regulators can be bent by industry demands, but that change is hardly surprising under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has consistently made furthering the aims of big business a top priority.Whenever his appointees deviate from that approach, they find themselves on the outside looking in. It happened to former ARB chairman Robert Sawyer, an emeritus professor of energy at UC Berkeley who Schwarzenegger described when he appointed him as an exceptionally accomplished scientistwho has devoted his career to using science to improve air quality. That was before Sawyer began moving aggressively against industries that further global warming by emitting large amounts of greenhouse gases a cause to which Schwarzenegger devotes considerable lip service.When Sawyer got even mildly aggressive, he was gone, replaced by the more malleable Mary Nichols, now in her second stint as ARB chairman. Back in the 1980s, Nichols distinguished herself by okaying a big business proposal to import liquefied natural gas (LNG) to California (thwarted by a Chumash Indian lawsuit) and by pushing hard for centralized smog testing centers, a plan under which one big company would have displaced thousands of small-business Smog-Check shops.Similarly, when Schwarzeneggers own brother-in-law Bobby Shriver and his movie mentor Clint Eastwood refused to go along with a developer-backed plan to build a new toll road through the San Onofre State Beach, they were bounced from the state parks commission. Never mind that Schwarzenegger two years earlier had denounced that plan; he now embraces it.Schwarzeneggers pattern of kowtowing to big business is ubiquitous in his administration, where officials of the state Chamber of Commerce and other large business groups and corporations regularly come and go through a steadily revolving door. This is all very consistent with the governors consistent practice of taking good care of campaign donors.Developers are his leading contributors, and last spring they received permission to use plastic water supply pipes in new construction, despite concerns about toxic chemicals possibly leaching into tap water. Twice Schwarzenegger vetoed bills mandating a comprehensive study of whether California has any need for LNG, which large contributor Sempra Energy will soon start importing. Last fall, he vetoed all 12 bills the Chamber called job killers and a measure to force restaurant chains (but not mom-and-pop operations) to display the nutritional content of all menu items. And on and on.The message is clear: Consumers and small businesses beware whenever your interests conflict with big business or big campaign donors. For Schwarzenegger, who styles himself the peoples governor has actually been a corporate pawn and all his appointees know they must go along or be gone. Its now clear the Air Resources Board is no exception.Thomas Elias writes on California issues. Reach him at email@example.com.