Cross of Gold

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.

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.

“I’m getting very angry . . . this is outrageous,” said Matthew McKinnon, a labor leader and CARB member, who had seemed unenthusiastic about ZEVs. Then he further excoriated the mauve-faced GM rep for the “disappointing way” his company had throttled its “excellent” EV-1 ZEV program.

Despite the hostility, instead of strongly supporting the CARB staff‘s December revisions in their favor, most of the manufacturers’ reps effectively undercut them by requesting a further slash in the lowered ZEV requirement. They also asked for a 60-day delay in the report‘s consideration -- presumably to get more lobbying time. These rather boorish demands seemed only to speed the board’s retreat from the revisions.

The exception was the guy from Ford, a sturdy industry pro named Kelly Brown, whose employers let him tell the board they could live with the 4,400-plus mandate, plus all that other clean-car stuff as well. Ford also happens to be the only big company currently offering a pure electric vehicle to the public, and the CARB members practically patted Brown on the head like a good spaniel for his acquiescence. But Janet Hathaway, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, surmised to me that this was all the result of a board strategy: Those controversial staff mitigations were probably intended to lure one of America‘s remaining two major car companies into the CARB tent.

Ford took the offer. “The others” -- including the overseas producers -- “are now going to have to follow,” she said. Since at least three Eastern states will adopt the new California standards, Detroit has little choice.

But I’m sure Brown and colleagues also know there‘ll be plenty more negotiations between now and the current clean-air closing date of 2020. Just as there have been since 1990, when the first CARB ZEV mandate was posted.

After all, this year there were supposed to be some 40,000 electric motorists on the California road -- instead of the 2,300 actually out there. So it’s conceivable, as the CARB folded its tent for its annual winter hearing, that almost everyone went home frazzled but content.

Except, of course, for Marco Firebaugh and Tony Cardenas, two young assemblymen whose sour-note testimony seemed too down-to-earth to affect the high-handed debate. What they asked was whether this zero-emission-car folderol would really benefit their inner-city districts, which are among the most polluted in the state. Cardenas represents the poor and industrial north of the San Fernando Valley, while Firebaugh represents the southeast L.A. County rust-belt cities.

“How many people in my district can afford to pay $400 a month to lease a [two-passenger] electric car?” Firebaugh asked, and what long-term difference would it make if they could? He suggested that the amount of money a ZEV program might cost could perhaps be better spent on mitigating barrio industrial pollution, and wanted to see some more input from the inner city on such issues before the final vote. There was an odd resonance here with the GM rep‘s diesel-pollution-reduction proposal that the board so contemptuously dismissed. But, although many of the entirely non-Latino board’s members seemed unable to pronounce their names, Cardenas and Firebaugh were treated far better than the poor GM guy. South Coast AQMD chairman William Burke even said, “They made just the speech I wanted to make,” although Burke, in fact, lives with his wife, county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, in L.A. Councilwoman Ruth Galanter‘s bosky 6th District. The board, however, after noting the pair’s objections, ignored them in the final decision.

So the CARB‘s “gold standard” clean-air policy based on pure battery cars was pretty much upheld. Which reminded me somehow of the last great public campaign for a gold standard -- the real one -- just over a century ago. There’s a strong historical parallel. What we most remember about this 1896 debate is the cry of loser William Jennings Bryan: “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” Bryan and his Democrats wanted a cheap, silver-based currency intended to encourage higher worker wages and farm prices. The opposing gold standard, on the other hand, was supposed to keep down wages to benefit the rich and middle classes. Who won the fight without leaving us a memorable utterance of their own.

But they didn‘t leave much else either, which is the point. It turned out that the gold standard was an empty ideal whose fulfillment was a worthless substitute for rigorous and desperately needed American banking reform. It could even be said that its empty c. 1900 triumph postponed that reform another 30 years -- until the social upheaval following the 1929 Crash. After which the standard was quietly scuttled without adverse effect.

I wonder if the CARB’s own “gold standard” -- the 4,450 zero-emission-vehicle 2003 mandate -- might not have a similar diversionary effect on the cleanup of California air pollution. Even 10 times that initial battery-car behest amounts to under 3 percent of California vehicles now sold per year. And the effect of even this many no-emission cars would be slashed if the ZEV owners kept driving their old smog-belchers on long weekend trips. The net result, particularly to the most polluted California communities, could be next to nil. The biggest pollution drop under the approved program is likely to come from the sale of now-available low-pollution hybrid cars with a wider appeal.

The CARB decision to push for theoretical perfection seems to be based on a gamble that the fuel-cell car -- which also counts as a ZEV -- can become a viable alternative to gas-powered autos within the next four years. Right now, a fuel-cell car‘s practical mileage is said to be only slightly greater than a battery vehicle’s. Its promoters say they‘ll double that range in a few years (and perhaps widen the range of fuels -- currently, zero-emission cells use hard-to-come-by hydrogen gas). But then, manufacturers were unable to deliver when they made the same promise regarding electric cars 20 years ago. Or, for that matter, 90 years ago.

It’s a sad fact that basic science often responds poorly to the demands of politics. If the fuel cell‘s science does pan out, the CARB wins its wager and we’ll have better air quality. If it loses, the board will have forfeited a chance to use more practical, if less idealistic, means to gain cleaner air.