Cross of Gold 

The California Air Resources Board swivels in the battle of the standards

Wednesday, Jan 31 2001

SACRAMENTO -- It was good guys vs. bad guys, heroes vs. villains and gold standard vs. silver at the California Air Resources Board (CARB) last week, but I‘m still not sure who won. The arguments were technical, but the cognitive conflict at the 11-hour-marathon hearing was as primeval as Cain and Abel’s.

You really had to be crammed into the undersize SRO Sacramento meeting room with 200 others to warm to the long-simmering hostilities beneath the abstruse question of which energy will turn our wheels in decades to come.

Most of the issues were overfamiliar to those present. Yet in the hottest moments of that debate, serious new questions were raised that the board didn‘t address. I expect that we haven’t heard the last of these, however, so I‘ll return to them later.

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As you may have read, the board did cut its requirements as to how many “zero-emission vehicles” manufacturers must sell in this state in the years to come -- but not nearly as much as its staff had recommended. The minimum, short-term goal for what are -- at the moment -- battery cars was held back, just as the staff recommended in early December, to a 4,450-car-sale minimum in 2003.

This was a serious reduction from the 2003 goal of 22,000 the board set in September. The short-term yaw from what the board members keep calling the “gold standard” of pollution control stampeded the enviro-tech set that wants motorists to drive battery cars. Most of the 90 people who spoke were from this faction; they generally castigated the “silver standard” internal-combustion-based low-emission vehicles favored in the December report and what one called the “phony promise of the false hybrids.” This viewpoint was heeded in the board’s two significant retreats from those recommendations: First, the board voted to include, starting in 2007, sports-utility vehicles among the cars and light trucks whose total sales numbers affect the ZEV percentage. Assuming urban assault vehicles keep on selling, this could amp up that year‘s ZEV-sales requirement by 40 percent. Second, the board now requires that another 100,000 “highly clean” vehicles be sold by 2003. “Highly clean” connotes a dreadfully complex series of calculations by which a gas-electric Toyota Prius is worth a certain fraction of a pure battery car. The most positive aspect of this equation remains that the more people buy low-polluting hybrid cars, the fewer customers are needed to buy those controversial zero-emission battery-mobiles that rarely get more than 70 miles on a charge. Eventually, fuel-cell vehicles would also count as multiple ZEVs, and this requirement is intended to hurry their development and production.

But for the next four years, at least, battery cars will probably be the only ZEV cars you can buy; the upgraded CARB demand now forces the automakers to resume their production on a larger-than-ever scale. And this is where the ideological food fight begins: The companies are claiming there’s no market for cars you can‘t drive from here to Santa Barbara without a three-hour recharge break in Oxnard. The ideologues claim there really is a huge market, but the companies conspire to suppress it.

Neither side has really proved its case, but the zealots’ own argument that electrics are good because they make us drive less suggests a limited appeal to the average car consumer. I‘m still waiting for the data that will prove a respectable percentage of the state’s 1.7 million yearly car buyers will ever spend the $22,000 differential over the price of a normal car for a less-convenient one that runs on batteries.

But the ideologists‘ gains last week really seemed less due to the virtues of their case than to the auto industry’s own political bungle-footedness. The battery zealots (and that they are, folks; one brags that he hauls an internal-combustion generator behind his short-legged EV-1, the equivalent, I suppose, of towing a fan behind your sailboat) can point to decades of Detroit‘s opacity, excuse making, recalcitrance and backsliding on all air-quality issues. Board members themselves stressed that the makers were, as one said, perennially “violating at least the spirit of our agreements.”

General Motors, for instance, recently ended the low-thousands production run of its EV-1, perhaps the best electric car ever built, claiming that there was no more demand. The zealots countered that the demand was still there when production ended (with, it must be said, a wide recall due to fire hazards) and, particularly because GM has refused to disclose its order records, it’s possible there may have been a few hundred or even a few thousand more people who would like to have had a chance to drive the car. We aren‘t allowed to know.

Certainly, none of the CARB members found GM’s deportment credible, let alone creditable. A novice GM spokesman was singled out for a round-robin tongue-lashing over what was interpreted as his offer to trade off compliance with the electric-car mandate by instead retrofitting the state‘s diesel school buses with particle filters.

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