SACRAMENTO — Two powerful Michigan lawmakers accused Gov. Pete Wilson on Tuesday of secretly offering to relax California's electric-car mandate in return for a pledge from the U.S. auto industry to move jobs to the state.
Wilson's top environmental aide denied the charge as "flatly wrong and spurious," but Rep. John Dingell and Sen. Carl Levin, both Democrats, asked the Clinton Administration to intervene, upping the political ante in a bruising battle over California's 1998 deadline for the sale of electric cars.
Dingell and Levin--closely aligned with the Big Three auto firms and the United Auto Workers union--made their plea in a letter to Vice President Al Gore. They argued that such "jobs extortion" is an abuse of California's authority under the federal Clean Air Act, which gives the state freedom to set its own clean-air standards apart from federal requirements.
This authority was granted to Sacramento "only for the purpose of addressing its unique smog problems," they said. "It was never intended to give California a bargaining chip to offer up in exchange for automotive manufacturing jobs."
The auto industry is fighting the 1998 California mandate, contending that a breakthrough in battery technology is needed if auto makers are to build electric cars that people will want and can afford.
But regulators and electric-car advocates call that a familiar Detroit smoke screen and declare confidently that the state's requirements are forcing the technology needed to meet the 1998 deadline. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency endorsed the rules Tuesday in a new clean-air plan for the Los Angeles basin.
Wilson has continued to say publicly that he supports the standards and the deadline, set by the California Air Resources Board in 1990.
The mandate says 2% of all new vehicles sold in the state in 1998 must emit zero emissions--in effect, a requirement to make available about 36,000 electric cars. The minimum climbs to 10% of new vehicles in 2003.
A required CARB review of its clean-air schedule will take place this year, and that, along with the lead time required to bring new vehicles to market, has brought the matter to a head.
As recently as Monday, Wilson's top environmental aide, Cal-EPA Secretary James M. Strock, told a legislative hearing that the governor "remains fully committed" to the electric-car mandate "as scheduled."
Strock reiterated that position Tuesday in response to the allegations from Levin and Dingell. "California in no way intends to compromise" the standards, he said. A spokesman said that applied to the timetable, also.
In their letter to Gore, Levin and Dingell attribute their information on Wilson's purported secret offer to two recent articles in the trade publication "Inside EPA's California Report."
One story in the publication quoted an unnamed Wilson aide as saying: "We've been putting forth the message if they (Detroit) want consideration of their agenda, there's got to be a concomitant agreement (to invest heavily in California)."
Wilson's compromise would relax the zero-emission rule in return for jobs, the publication said.
To those skeptical of Wilson's commitment, other facts lend the reports an air of credibility. The state's mania for new jobs is no secret, and Wilson last fall had lunch with Ford Vice Chairman Alan Gilmour, who made the auto industry's case for delaying the standards.
Ambitious plans to build an electric-car industry in the state have become a prominent item on California's economic-development agenda.
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