By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
California’s vision has been important for people across the nation and around the world because it has driven the auto companies to build cleaner vehicles. “It has been monumental,” said Bill Moore, editor of EV World, who has followed the development of electric vehicles since 1998. “Without it, nothing would happen.”
Burke saw things differently. He met privately with General Motors and ended up pushing a proposal to weaken the standard by allowing the giant company to spend millions of dollars to buy its way out of it. Enter Dennis Minano, an attorney who served as vice president of environment and energy for General Motors at the time. “I knew Bill was on the California Air Resources Board. I flew out [from Detroit] and had a chance to sit down and talk to him.” Minano said Burke “was willing to look at new approaches to getting air-quality benefits.”
At the same time, Minano also hoped to work out an agreement with Burke, as chairman of the AQMD, over a contract dispute between his company and the regional agency.
After the meeting — just five months before the air board would vote on the future of the state’s zero-emissions vehicle standard — Burke joined Minano in announcing the AQMD-GM “Community Clean Air Partnership.” Under that partnership, GM was to settle the contract breach with the AQMD involving a project to clean up diesel locomotives. GM, one of two major locomotive builders in North America, had failed to fully participate in delivering a test model of a clean-burning, natural-gas train engine for the Los Angeles area. In a handshake agreement later bragged about in a nonbinding press release, GM promised many things, but has made good only on a donation of $250,000 to a foundation set up by Burke to raise money to clean up diesel school buses — which quickly folded — and to purchase two clean buses in Orange County and 12 clean passenger vans to various community groups. However, the company never delivered on the major item: $1.5 million worth of retrofit kits to reduce ‰pollution from locomotives. AQMD executive officer Barry Wallerstein claims the automotive giant is still working on the kits. “Our position remains, locomotives need to be cleaned up,” he said.
As Burke publicized the partnership with GM, the company hatched a divide-and-conquer strategy, pitting environmental-justice advocates against the zero-emissions auto standards.
In January of 2001, the CARB met to consider a stretched-out timetable for meeting the zero-emissions vehicle standard, as well as to give automakers credit toward the standard for hybrid vehicles and superclean gasoline cars. As the daylong hearing progressed, Burke told his fellow board members, “Now you know, I make deals for a living. I’m going to vote for this thing now, so I’m not trying to make a deal here and change anything on here. I’m a zero-emissions vehicle advocate, but I’m also a realist.”
Burke continued, “I’m the only one on this board with only one lung. I’m the only one on this board with a diminishing capacity in the other lung. Two years ago when I really got sick, going to the bathroom from my bed was a two-stop trip.” Burke, it turned out, had developed trouble breathing around 1997 because of a progressive spinal injury that was compressing a nerve that controlled one of his lungs. He underwent spinal surgery, which largely corrected the problem.
What Burke did not reveal is that he had sent letters to his fellow board members and the staff of the CARB asking them to delay acting on the amendments and to consider further softening the standards. On January 9, Burke wrote to CARB executive officer Michael P. Kenny urging “the board to fully consider the industry’s alternative” — the buyout plan. The same day, he wrote to his fellow board members urging them to delay acting on the amendments until the state could conduct “an extensive energy audit of the impact that the zero-emissions vehicle mandate might have on California’s energy situation.”
Burke’s concerns echoed those of GM, which wondered about how charging electric vehicles would affect the electricity grid in the midst of the energy crisis of 2000-01, a contention David Freeman, who headed the California Power Agency at the time and had spent a career managing electric utilities, called an “outrageous” tactic.
In disclosing contacts he had concerning the amendments right before the air-board voted, Burke said, “I instructed my staff assistant I didn’t want to talk to anybody on this . . . She did an excellent job and she let only two slip through.” They were, he said, Minano of GM and Tom Soto of P.S. Enterprises.
“I was a consultant to GM,” Soto recounted. “I helped design a plan that would work as an alternative to the zero-emissions vehicle mandate.” Under that plan, Soto explained, GM and other automakers would make a cash payment to the state to buy their way out of the zero-emissions vehicle requirement. The money would be used to clean up diesel vehicles, including school buses, a chief concern of environmental-justice advocates. Burke, Soto said, supported the plan, believing it would enable the state to continue its diesel cleanup program, which was beginning to run out of money at the time. “It was very bold of him to take that position,” said Soto, who also worked to secure legislative support for the giant automaker.
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city