Global Warming Tops Policy Concerns for Auto Industry

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON -- For more than a decade, the auto industry has pretty much got what it wanted in this town. Tighter fuel standards? Forget about it. New safety standards? Small potatoes only, please.

But suddenly, Detroit is finding a new reason to worry about Washington: global warming. Industry officials say there is no greater threat to the American auto industry than a concerted worldwide push to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other so- called greenhouse gases, the suspected culprits in long-term global climate change.

Asked to rank the industry's major policy and regulatory concerns over the next few years, a senior representative of the Big Three answered, "Global warming is No. 1, and everything else is very far behind." No, Congress has not slipped out of Republican hands, and the Sierra Club's lobbyists are still outnumbered on K Street. But Mike Stanton, the chief Washington lobbyist for the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, said the industry is watching with great trepidation as officials debate the government's position on a proposed global climate-change treaty. With a prod from Vice President Al Gore, who sounded an early alarm about possible global warming, the administration is expected to endorse some form of binding international emissions standards when representatives of 180 nations gather in December in Kyoto, Japan, for a conference on global climate change. It is not surprising then, that when the president met with the chief executives of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler at the White House last month to discuss trade policies, what he heard instead were complaints about emissions control. The Kyoto conference will lay the road map for the next five years on how the world begins to cope with carbon emissions and their effect on climate and health. The proposal that frightens automakers most is one that will impose strict emissions standards on the developed nations but exempt the developing world, where the growth in greenhouse gas emissions is expected to be much more rapid. Carbon dioxide occurs naturally in the atmosphere, but it is also emitted by cars, factories and the burning of carbon-based fuels like oil, coal and wood. Levels of this and other greenhouse gases are rising and thought to be warming the planet by trapping sunlight that otherwise would be reflected back into space. The automobile is a chief source of these gases. To environmental advocates, it is also one of the easiest to control. "The reason they think it's such a threat is that the biggest single step we can take to prevent it is making our car go farther on a gallon of gas," said Dan Becker, the director of the Sierra Club's global warming and energy program. "So we are advocating higher- mileage cars." Becker said a car that gets 27.5 miles a gallon produces 38 tons of carbon dioxide gas over a 10-year lifetime. A 45-mile-per-gallon car emits 23 tons. That is what worries automakers. One of their least-favorite pieces of legislation over the last 20 years is the law imposing corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE standards, forcing them to sell two or three economy cars for every low-mileage, high-profit car they produce. There is no known way to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of gasoline. Stanton said there are only two ways to reduce such emissions: drive less or drive in cars that burn less gas. That means either raising gasoline prices, imposing transportation-control measures like car pooling or alternate-day driving, or raising CAFE standards. Each of these steps would impose huge costs on the industry -- and thus car buyers -- with uncertain benefits, Stanton said. "The truth of the matter is there are lots of questions on the science of global warming," he said. …