Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Why California is preparing for an environmental war

One by one they lined up to speak Monday at the microphone inside the California Air Resource Board’s Byron Sher Auditorium.

Representatives from the Sierra Club, the Environmental Health Coalition, the California Forestry Association, and a host of others approached the podium and vigorously thanked CARB for pursuing aggressive early action items related to AB32 – the states’ strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions within its borders.

It makes a person wonder what has led environmentalists and agency staffers to be as driven and focused as they are on trucks while seemingly stalling related efforts with cars.

Matt Schrap, environmental manager with the California Trucking Association, told me this week he believes CARB faces much political pressure to attack emissions in trucks.

“(CARB’s) authority is limited in dealing with airlines, railroads and steamships – who are very large contributors to greenhouse gases,” he said. “So we’ve got the big red target on us.”

Many of these same environmental interest groups failed in their efforts to convince CARB to keep its requirement for sales of zero-emissions cars in 2003.

The story behind CARB and zero-emissions cars is detailed in the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car.” The 90-minute film spotlights the General Motors EV1 electric two-door coupe, which was developed during the 1990s to meet the California Air Resources Board’s 1990 requirement that automakers develop and sell a required percentage of zero-emissions cars – thought to be a lofty goal at the time.

But GM did develop the EV1 – using a battery-powered engine that could be plugged in and recharged at home or at the office. Thousands of Californians leased the car, including celebrities such as Tom Hanks, who praised the car’s price (mostly comparable to other small domestics) while using the electric equivalent of 40 cents per gallon of energy.

As the popularity of electric cars seemed poised for mainstream attention in the early 2000s, automakers and oil companies began hyping hydrogen-powered cars. Shortly after CARB’s decision, GM required all EV1 leaseholders to turn their cars back in.

Many Hollywood celebrities, including Ed Begley Jr. and Baywatch lifeguard Alexandra Paul, led protest efforts, even camping out for weeks outside one GM building where dozens of the final EV1’s were kept before being crushed.

The major automakers successfully argued that demand for electric vehicles was too low, and costs were still too high.

The documentary countered that GM relied on hand-built assembly of about four cars a day that did make production costs too high, and said newer battery technology gives between 120 miles and 300 miles of driving per charge.

The movie points out that the CARB chairman at the time, Alan Lloyd, had joined the California Fuel Cell Partnership just months before the agency’s critical decision to abandon its own zero-emissions requirement. During the board meeting, Lloyd cut a battery expert’s presentation to three minutes after allowing automaker representatives unlimited time earlier in the meeting.

GM, other auto manufacturers and even oil companies such as Shell have touted Hydrogen-powered vehicles in the future, though “Who killed the electric car” should that technology is further away from being ready for mass consumption than battery-powered electric cars.

The October CARB meeting agenda will include one early action item to consider a mandate of hybrid medium and heavy-duty trucks (which CARB considers trucks above 10,000 pounds). No hybrid heavy-duty truck has been invented yet, though CARB has decided to wait on mandating hybrid cars and light-duty trucks, for which technology already exists.

As CARB continues to stockpile new rules to limit emissions and greenhouse gases, you have to wonder how if the agency will bend its ear to trucking as they have for the auto industry.

By the way, other electric vehicles are still available for purchase, though this site showed some pretty high prices.