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Risk in Crying Foul Over Exhaust Rules

Automakers are likely to face bad PR if they sue to stop a proposal to cut greenhouse gas emissions in California.

June 21, 2004|John O'Dell | Times Staff Writer

The nation's auto industry could hit a public relations pothole if it presses ahead with its threat to sue California over a plan to slash emissions of greenhouse gases.

State regulators unveiled a proposal last week that would require cars and trucks to adhere to dramatically tighter standards for the discharge of carbon dioxide and other gases that have been linked to global warming.

The rules would go into effect by the end of 2014 for all passenger vehicles sold in California, with the aim of reducing the emissions by almost 30%.

Most major automakers are campaigning against the proposal through their Washington-based lobby, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which has said it may challenge the plan in court when final regulations are drafted this fall.

Automakers already have a reputation for dragging their feet on government mandates for emissions and safety improvements, and the industry "will definitely be hurt in public perception" if it sues, said Anthony Pratt, an analyst with auto industry marketing consulting firm J.D. Power & Associates.

"People will be saying, 'There they go again,' if they fight the greenhouse gas plan."

Major environmental groups have pledged to battle automakers in the media as well as in the courtroom if the lawsuit is filed.

"The whole nation is watching what happens in California this time," said Jason Mark, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Berkeley-based Clean Vehicles Program.

The principal way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks is to improve fuel efficiency. That's because carbon dioxide, the principal offender, can't be eliminated with filters or catalysts.

The auto industry sees California's plan as a thinly disguised, and illegal, effort to reduce the size and number of fuel-guzzling pickups and sport utility vehicles on the roads by forcing a big improvement in the fuel economy of vehicles sold in California.

The state has the power to write its own air quality rules, but only the federal government can set fuel economy standards.

Fuel-thirsty pickups and SUVs, which make up more than half the passenger vehicle market, are among the most profitable the industry makes. With some help from dealer incentives, they continue to sell well nationally despite the generally rising cost of gasoline.

"We build what people want," said Bob Purcell, executive director of powertrain development at General Motors Corp.

Jim Hossack, a vice president and analyst with automotive market research firm AutoPacific Inc. in Tustin, said research showed that gasoline prices would have to hit and stick at the $3-a-gallon level to cause a significant change in motorists' car-buying habits.

Eron Shosteck, a spokesman for the automakers alliance, said a suit was "just one of the options" being considered in response to the California greenhouse plan. He declined to discuss the others. Automakers insist that the industry is environmentally aware and is working to lower harmful emissions.

In fact, the industry is in a tough position, Hossack said, considering that it is trying to build an environmentally aware image for itself but has been unable to make bestsellers out of the most fuel-efficient vehicles, which discharge the least carbon dioxide.

"They can either shoot themselves in the foot" by opposing greenhouse rules, he said, "or shoot themselves in the head by going along."

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