Green Standards Aren't Just for Detroit

As heads of the Big Three automotive corporations go before Congress looking for at least $15 billion in bridge loans, they come with greener promises. The automakers and members of Congress have offered greater fuel efficiency, even going so far as to pledge working toward a 45-miles-per-gallon threshold (much higher than the "35 miles per gallon by 2020" requirement called for in the energy bill).

But while it's the Northern Big Three -- Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors -- that are currently before Congress seeking a bailout, a truly forward-thinking legislative package would apply the environmental standards to all U.S. automakers, not just those in Michigan and Ohio. A new Big Three has arisen in the South, in Alabama in particular, where Mercedes Benz, Honda, and Hyundai have set up shop. Now, Alabama is poised to overtake Michigan as the new center for the automotive industry. Add the Toyota and Nissan plants in Mississippi and the new Kia plant on the Georgia-Alabama border and a new industry map emerges.

Alabama, which ranks fifth in the U.S. in car and light-truck production, has been adding jobs and expanding parts manufacturing and parts facilities while Michigan has been shrinking in jobs and closing plants. In 2007, motor vehicles were Alabama's top export, and it has seen the biggest net gain of any state in auto-related jobs over the last 10 years. In the top six states for automotive jobs, only Alabama and Tennessee saw their employment rates rise in the past five years, while the employment rate in Michigan, California, and Ohio sustained double-digit drops.

But while Alabama and Tennessee have been outpacing Michigan and Ohio in jobs, sales, and market share, they have not been creating better cars. For this reason, Congress should be as tough on the new Big Three from the South as it is on the old Big Three in the North when it comes to new environmental standards.

In the early 20th century, the "Great Migration" led millions of mostly African Americans from the South to Northern urban centers for new manufacturing and industrial jobs. Today, there's been a reverse migration of proportional scale, with hundreds of thousands of workers headed back to the South for jobs in manufacturing, parts, and sales for Asian and European automakers. The main reason the job advantage tilts south is due to Dixiecrat anti-union labor regulations and the paucity of legacy costs that come with fresh employment, both of which international companies adore for business. But even though the industry may be newer in the South, its environmental policies aren't any more forward-thinking than those in Northern states.

In order to truly blunt climate-change forces, all cars should be getting 60 miles per gallon by mid-century -- many climate experts say sooner than that. That process should have started years ago. Hyundai, Honda, Mercedes, and Toyota have, in general, been ahead of the Big Three in introducing and producing hybrid-powered fleets. Last year when car companies discussed goals for increased fuel economy, the Michigan automakers balked at the goal of 35 miles per gallon by 2020. Nissan was instrumental in convincing Republican senators to vote for the higher fuel standards despite the North's wishes.

But many of the cars manufactured in the South are not much closer to meeting those standards than Michigan is. Nissan's major product in Mississippi is the Altima, which is good on fuel efficiency (and has a hybrid version), but its other models manufactured in the South -- the Nissan Quest and Infinity QX56, a minivan and sports utility vehicle respectively -- are major gas guzzlers. (Nissan announced this year that it was ceasing production of them but not until 2010.) Many vehicles made by internationals in the South not only perform worse on fuel efficiency than domestics but are also worse in carbon-dioxide emissions. Take the Mercedes M-Class SUV or the Hyundai Sante Fe SUV -- both major exports out of Alabama and both less fuel efficient than a number of comparable brands built in the North. Both are also more carbon-polluting than their Ford and GM counterparts, the former averaging between 10 to 11 tons of carbon dioxide (and carbon equivalents) spewed annually to the latters' five to eight. Some M-Class Benzes emit as much as 15 tons annually.

The traditional Big Three, however, are only marginally better in efficiency and staving off carbon pollution. Given they've been around for decades longer than their global competitors, they've had much more potential and responsibility to improve car design and production. GM and Ford have been putting billions into research and development for new technology since the 1980s but haven't put those innovations on the road in the way other car companies across the globe have. Instead, innovation for the U.S. has amounted to TVs in the headrests. At the century's turn, Ford was partnered with Ballard Power Systems, a company that makes hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered products, for a zero-emission engine that it then announced would be available at commercial scale by 2004. They missed that mark, and Ballard pulled out of the project earlier this year.

What did happen in 2004 was more carbon-dioxide emissions out the tailpipes. With the Clean Air Act and through the innovative development of catalytic converters, U.S. auto manufacturers have significantly lowered dangerous emissions of hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxide, and carbon monoxide. But carbon-dioxide emissions have risen 70 percent since 1970. Overall, the Michigan Big Three have been the worst offenders, mostly due to the sheer volume of cars they've produced, which outnumber people in the U.S. who can actually buy and drive them. By 2004, according to a study done by the Environmental Defense Fund, Ford, GM, and Chrysler accounted for 73 percent of carbon emissions from light vehicles in the U.S. All car companies, but the Michigan Three more than anyone, will now have to dramatically rearrange their priorities and quickly, especially given the 2007 Supreme Court decision that stated that the Environmental Protection Agency must regulate carbon-dioxide emissions, which means these companies possibly could be sued in the future if they continue spewing carbon at their current rates. Their restructuring plan for billions in bailout loans would be a good place to show that this will be a top priority.

Given the huge amounts of money the domestic-based automotive industry puts into research and development, especially in Michigan where $12.4 billion is put up annually, it's a wonder how they didn't already have these bases covered. Ford announced last week that it would contribute $14 billion next year into fuel-efficiency-technology development, but throwing more money at the problem won't mean much if they don't start producing and deploying applications and parts that will substantially increase fuel economy and reduce carbon emissions. As of 2005, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Honda had already joined Ford and GM in the top 20 research-and-development-spenders category. Congressional Democrats are right to refute the White House proposal to pull bailout money from the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program, where $25 billion is supposed to be used specifically for developing alternative-power models and equipment. The money GM and Chrysler are requesting is for financial solvency. Pulling money from the ATVML fund will harm other car companies that are working to curb oil dependency and reduce carbon-dioxide emissions.

GM's vice president, Robert Lutz, has said that blaming GM CEO Richard Wagoner is like "blaming the mayor of a city hit by an earthquake." No, it's not. Earthquakes are mostly unforeseen. The automakers have known we need to reduce oil consumption and carbon emissions since the Arab oil embargo of 1973, which spurred us to double our fuel-efficiency standards. Today, the Southern Big Three, if they don't clean up their act as well, should be just as accountable as the Northern Big Three for our ensuing climate catastrophes. As Congress both bails out and imposes tougher standards on the North, it should be careful not to overlook the emerging South.

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