Out of Gas

Robert Redford and a host of dignitaries were on hand in San Francisco last week when Governor Gray Davis signed the nation‘s first legislation to combat global warming. But on the opposite coast, on the same day, there was another gathering on the same topic, with a decidedly opposite tone and purpose.

This meeting involved high-level auto-industry executives who saw the global-warming bill as a defeat -- because their cars will have to comply with new anti-pollution standards. The California law requires automakers to sharply curtail tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases, the gases that contribute to global warming, by 2009.

Earlier indications, in the days prior to the bill’s signing, signaled that the industry was ready to qualify a ballot initiative and then spend $35 million to erase the global-warming bill, which was authored by Assemblywoman Fran Pavley. But industry consensus was breached when Toyota -- which is moving on cleaner-operating hybrid cars and is advised by a state official from the Governor Jerry Brown years -- expressed deep misgivings. And then Ford came in, expressing neutrality. The war hawks in the industry camp, General Motors and its ally Daimler Chrysler, were unable to carry the day.

The Republican Party also has been a staunch opponent of the bill. But word was that Republicans lacked stomach for a referendum unless Ford was fully onboard. Participants in the Washington session were concerned that the proposed $35 million campaign would fail, given California‘s environmental leanings and the likelihood of strong Democratic opposition. Republicans also had concerns about their gubernatorial nominee, Bill Simon Jr., who has had three positions on the Pavley bill -- opposed, then neutral, then opposed again -- conveying confusion throughout.

For their part, Democrats could count on strong support from Hollywood. “I’ll do everything I can to beat the industry if they try a referendum,” said actor Redford as he was leaving the bill-signing ceremony. “You‘d get tired of seeing me.” Then there’s the new generation of high-tech execs. “We know that innovation can work for the environment,” said Sybase co-founder Bob Epstein, who was also in attendance.

Worried about the prospect of well-financed industry opposition, the bill‘s backers orchestrated their own backstage maneuvers. State Senate President John Burton (D--San Francisco) did as much as anyone to get the bill through the Legislature in the first place, including bucking up Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson (D--Los Angeles) after a $5 million industry lobbying campaign stalled the bill in the lower house. Burton also negotiated with political consulting firms that the industry side wanted to use, making sure they would stay in his fold. But perhaps most important were high-level contacts between the bill’s backers and Ford Motor Co. heir and chairman Bill Ford, who does commercials touting his concern for clean air. He wants to be seen as a green auto executive.

Environmentalists now have something to build on. Last weekend, they briefed the National Conference of State Legislators in Denver. Discussions are under way to launch similar anti-global-warming drives in other states. And the organization Environmental Defense issued a friendly challenge to automakers, releasing a compendium of ways to improve automotive design and fuel efficiency.

So a feared voters‘ initiative financed by the industry is off. A local Republican candidate still vows to lead a referendum drive, but the serious industry players will take their chances in court, rather than risk a catastrophic electoral defeat in the nation’s largest state.

It didn‘t help opponents to know that the Pavley bill scored 81 percent approval in a Public Policy Institute poll. Besides, noted former Governor Jerry Brown, who was on hand for the bill signing, “Don’t you think the corporations are too tainted to win a campaign?”

His former chief of staff, Gray Davis, didn‘t seem worried either. He was in a fine mood after burnishing his environmental credentials, which had taken a pounding during the energy crisis. Was he worried about fighting the auto industry at the ballot box? “You know,” said Davis, “I just play the hand I’m dealt. We‘d beat them.”


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