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
Soto arranged for a group of environmental-justice advocates from the East Los Angeles community of Boyle Heights to attend the hearing and speak in support of the GM proposal. “It turns out that GM paid our way,” said one of the activists, Margarita Sanchez.
Wallerstein said that the AQMD supported GM’s proposal to buy the company’s way out of the mandate, a move thought to be worth $400 million a year to the state and AQMD to clean up diesel vehicles. As a member of the state CARB and chair of the AQMD, Burke would have had substantial control over that money. “Once I have control of the money,” said Burke, “you can’t pull the wool over my eyes. End of story.” He called backing the GM plan “the best move I ever made in my life.”
However, Burke said, “We couldn’t do that without CARB’s permission. So I called up Alan Lloyd [chair of the CARB] and said, ‘Look, here’s the deal: They’re willing to do this. Can we do it as a pilot project?’ And he said, ‘No,’ so I said, ‘Okay,’ but told him that battery electric vehicles were going nowhere. Alan Lloyd says, ‘I have orders from the administration to continue to pursue battery technology.’”
Asked about whether he had orders from the administration or governor, Lloyd simply replied: “Not correct. I never got a call from the governor. In all my time I got one call from the governor, and that was not to tell me what to do. I didn’t see any merit in having a company buy its way out of the standard.” He went on to say it was “the start of a slippery slope” to allow a company to buy its way out of a regulation.
The GM lobbying campaign inspired key members of the state Assembly to send letters questioning the zero-emissions vehicle program, including then-Speaker Herb Wesson, a former chief of staff for Burke’s wife; Carl Washington, a former staff member for Burke’s wife; Tony Cardenas, chair of the budget committee; Alex Padilla; Marco Firebaugh and others who urged a delay on the vote. They also urged the CARB to give automakers greater flexibility in meeting the emissions standards.
Lloyd said he welcomed the legislators’ voicing their concerns. “What I was surprised about,” he said, “was the explicit reference at the hearing that some of the legislators were sitting on our budget.”
Typical of the letters was one sent by Wesson, who wrote on January 12, 2001, “California’s communities need a regulation that will further the objectives of the zero-emissions vehicle mandate, namely cleaner air and healthier citizens, while giving regulators and businesses a flexible framework that can consider new ideas.”
Addressing the concerns of legislators and automakers, the air board gave automakers credit toward meeting the zero-emissions standard by improving energy efficiency in their gasoline-powered cars. “It was an attempt to extend flexibility,” recalled the Air Resources Board’s Witherspoon. “The surprising part was when they filed the lawsuit.”
It should have been no surprise, however. In a three-volume submission to the air board just days before the 2001 vote, GM warned that it would sue the state if the standard was adopted. Nobody discussed the warning at the hearing, and air-board staff members did not recall reading the document. The board approved the revisions, including the last-minute energy-efficiency language. GM then joined Daimler-Chrysler and a group of Central Valley auto dealers to challenge the revised regulations on the grounds that the federal Energy Policy and Conservation Act pre-empted states from setting fuel-efficiency standards for autos. A federal district court issued an injunction preventing the CARB from enforcing the 2001 standards. While the board appealed the injunction, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco never heard the case. Instead, the air board settled it and early in 2003 effectively removed the zero-emissions vehicle requirement from the state regulations, except to require the automakers to produce a handful of hydrogen-powered, fuel-cell vehicles.
The standard was overturned just as the electric vehicle was poised to gain commercial success because of a breakthrough that had occurred in battery technology. “It was like telling people to scale Mount Everest and, when they were a foot from the top, telling them, ‘No, we didn’t mean it,’” said Steve Kirsch, the founder of Infoseek, whose foundation pushes development of electric vehicles. “Everyone supporting the climbers just packed and left.”
In the end, the air board “got nothing,” said Wallerstein. After beating back the standards, Dennis Minano retired from GM, and the company did not deliver any money to the state to clean up diesel trucks and buses.
“They made a bad decision in Sacramento, but I guess the governor paid for that because he got recalled,” said Burke. Weeks later, in a follow-up interview, Burke said tighter controls on auto emissions are now needed. “If you don’t control the mobile emissions, we’re fighting a standoff and will be overcome,” he said.
It now appears that the same corporate interests, along with those of the city of Los Angeles that had dominated the AQMD in the early to mid-1980s, have recaptured the agency. Burke, it seems, may have played a role. GM talked of developing new sources of money to advance environmental justice and cleaner air, but the money never came. And, under Burke, the agency backed off on rule making and its push for renewable energy. It unwittingly set the stage for deterioration in air quality just as it had final victory in the 50-year war against smog within its sights.
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