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Emissions fuel debate

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JAMES P. LEUTE
November 3, 2007
— With attention focused on fuel economy debates on the East Coast, General Motors and other automakers are now trying to snuff out a call for stricter vehicle emission standards emanating from the West Coast.

The regulatory results of each could have a significant effect on the GM assembly plant in Janesville, which builds full-size sport utility vehicles that are often at the heart of any debate on fuel efficiency and emissions.


California wants to impose tougher regulations on the emission of greenhouse gases from passenger cars, pickup trucks, sport utility vehicles and vans. It wants to implement a 2002 state law that would make automakers build vehicles that emit less greenhouse gas by the 2009 model year, with eventual reductions of 30 percent by 2016.


Eleven other states have joined California’s effort, which can take effect only if the Environmental Protection Agency grants a waiver under the Clean Air Act.


While the EPA has said a decision is expected by year-end, automakers say individual state rules would create chaos at auto plants and in the marketplace.


“We’d need a national policy, not one driven by individual states,” said Robert F. Babik, GM’s director of vehicle emissions. “We sell vehicles nationwide, and vehicles are mobile. They move from state to state.”


Babik was in Sun Prairie on Friday addressing the Governor’s Task Force on Global Warming, which is wrangling with a wide variety of issues that ultimately will be boiled down to public policy recommendations.


One of those issues is whether Wisconsin should sign on in support of the California standards.


Gary Malkus, who manages the GM plant in Janesville and its 2,500 hourly and 200 salaried workers, serves on the task force. Obviously, he doesn’t think the California standards make for the best public policy.


Tom Cackette does, however. As executive director of the California Air Resources Board, he also was on hand Friday.


California was granted an EPA waiver in the 1960s to impose stricter emission regulations to reduce smog in Los Angeles. Carmakers met those challenges, Cackette said, and the efforts in California pioneered onboard computers, fuel vapor controls, check engine diagnostics and fuel injection.


“That all led to the cleanest passenger cars in the world,” Cackette said, adding that L.A.’s air quality has improved significantly despite a huge increase in the number of vehicles on the road and the miles they travel.


L.A.’s air, however, is still the dirtiest in the nation, he said.


Babik said the rest of the nation shouldn’t “be forced to go on a diet just because California has a problem.”


Babik and Cackette said today’s vehicles are 99 percent cleaner than they were in 1990.


That will improve, Babik said, as new models with new technologies replace an older fleet.


“California’s standards are happening in a very short time frame,” he said. “This is an extreme stretch from the technology, feasibility and timing standpoints.”


Babik said every new GM model is designed with fuel efficiency and emission improvements.


In June, the Senate passed corporate average fuel economy legislation that mandates a standard of 35 miles per gallon for new cars and trucks by 2020. Babik said GM and other automakers support an alternative bill with a target of 32 mpg to 35 mpg by 2022.


“GM supports change,” he said. “We support reductions in green house gases and better fuel efficiency. We just need flexibility.”


That flexibility, he said, involves emerging technology and alternative fuels that are in varying stages of availability.


As an example, GM routinely touts its flexible fuel vehicles, most notably those that run on E-85.


Wisconsin is a leader in alternative fuels, Babik said, noting that the state annually produces 268 million gallons of ethanol with production plans for another 220 million gallons. E-85 is available at 94 fueling stations in Wisconsin.


California, he said, produces about 68 million gallons of ethanol each year. E-85 is available at one California station, although three others are planned.


Cakette said that in addition to being good for the environment, the proposed California standards will benefit consumers. All models will be available, vehicle cost increases will be minimal and warrantees and repair assistance will improve, he said.


Automakers will be able to meet the stricter standards with either off-the-shelf or emerging technologies, he said.


For example, the 2008 dual-mode hybrid Tahoe that GM will start producing later this year already will comply with the 2016 California standards.


Babik isn’t so sure about that. And even if the Tahoe is compliant, the hybrid technology will cost much more than the Californians believe.


“We believe the California standards will add an average premium of $3,000 to the cost of a new car,” he said. “In California, they believe it will be between $300 and $1,000.


“… I didn’t know the California Air Resources Board was in the business of building cars.”


Babik said in 2006, there were 230 million vehicles on the roads, a significant increase over 1979. Those vehicles are traveling more than one trillion more miles.


Combating those growing numbers will require much more than stricter state-by-state emissions standards, Babik said.


“It’s very much a package deal that includes, among other things, evolving technologies and fuel diversity,” he said.



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