Basically, our leaders were toadying up to the corporate buffet table.
Detroit leaned on legislators to give it a nearly two-decades long “pass” on raising CAFE (corporate average fleet economy) standards and they fought efforts by states like California to make vehicles cleaner. California had, for decades, held the right to maintain higher air quality standards for vehicles sold within the Golden State, even though it was consistently challenged by the auto industry and the oil industry.
It was only when California attempted to regulate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions related to global warming that the auto and oil interests, backed by oilmen in the White House, finally broke the back of this historic exception. The auto industry presented the regulation of GHG tailpipe emissions as a back door attempt to force higher fuel economy standards, a power reserved to the federal government. The result of GHG emissions reduction would have required higher fuel economy, since CO2, the most common GHG, is a direct byproduct of fuel combustion: less fuel burned, fewer gases. The courts finally crippled California’s hard-won and long held right. Just in time for our latest energy crisis.
In 1993 the U.S. government and the U.S. automotive industry joined in a partnership, the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV) (see Wikipedia and FuelEconomy.gov) to establish U.S. leadership in the development and production of affordable, fuel-efficient, low-emission vehicles that meet all customer needs. The partnership involves 7 federal agencies, the national laboratories, universities, suppliers and the United States Council for Automotive Research (USCAR); DaimlerChrysler Corp., Ford Motor Co., and General Motors Corp. The goal was to build a passenger car capable of 80mpg with the kind of performance, comfort and amenities consumers wanted, and presumably at a price they could afford. While automakers and government laboratories fiddled on experimental vehicles, it was clear that this was a publicity stunt. The PNGV petered out, eventually coming up with a best effort of a 62mpg vehicle which no one would ever make.
Then there was the notorious SUV loophole in the tax code, which allowed any small business – not just the farmers and construction contractors it was designed for – to purchase a truck or SUV over 6,000lbs and get a nearly 100% tax credit for the purchase. That’s why every accountant, pimp and rock star had one or more of the gas-sucking beasts in their garage, and why Detroit could keep selling these monsters with the fat profit margins. Talk about a transfer of wealth via the tax code…
Beyond that, government requirements for fleets to invest in alternative fuel vehicles when they replaced or expanded were ignored. Not even the Department of Energy, the agency charged with overseeing the implimentation of the fleet rules, followed the guidelines. The DOE was called on repeatedly to take action and refused until a coalition of environmental organizations took them to court in 2005 and finally won in 2007. Even so, the Bush junta has punted this and all other significant environmental enforcement to the Obama administration. The recent upgrading in CAFE standards is almost laughable. I’ll call it only chuckle-worthy, since some progress – however late and lame – is better than none, particularly when the state of the planet is at stake.
Where should government have been? Government should have been looking to the future, seeing that oil wasn’t limitless, that our national and economic security was based on access – not the ungodly cheap right – to affordable energy, notably petroleum or petroleum substitutes. It should have seen that part of its role was to encourage and if necessary require and incent research and development to wean us off foreign oil imports, and move us toward a cleaner and more efficient transportation model. It should have recognized and acted on the fact that the U.S. public was NOT paying the true costs of its petroleum dependency, that the pump price didn’t include the cost of health care and environmental degradadtion related to smog and tailpipe emssions, the political and military costs involved with ensuring the continued flow of black gold to this country, the costs of replacing petroleum and its derivatives in our services and products.
In not pursuing this role, the U.S. government not only failed the people of this country, it also failed the business community. Part of the government’s role is to provide an organized and stable marketplace. No, that’s not in the Constitution, but neither is not taking a dump in the middle of Main Street.
Where does that leave us? More on that next time.
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May the Higher Power of your choice guide your reflection on what you want from our leaders, then kick you in the butt to go out and demand it.