The Obama administration has apparently decided to slam shut — and nail down — the coffin lid on the U.S. auto industry.
It was announced this week that the administration intends to give California and a handful of other states legal authority to impose their own mileage, emissions and fuel economy requirements — requirements that may and probably will exceed federal standards.
The auto industry — already crippled by sales that are off as much as 30-50 percent from last year — faces two equally unpalatable options: It will either have to either build two sets of cars for two different markets (California and the rest of the country) or make all their new vehicles meet the stricter “California standard” — which will be both complex and costly.
This is a devastating blow — and one that the enfeebled U.S. auto industry probably cannot withstand.
Of course, it all sounds nice on paper. Who could oppose “cleaner” cars? But the reality is not so simple.
President Obama is neither an engineer nor a businessman — having spent about a year of his entire career outside the government. So he probably doesn’t understand that, in the first place, current-year cars are already close to emissions-free.
Compared with a car built during the 1970s, a 2009 model year car produces virtually none of the noxious combustion byproducts (chiefly unburned hydrocarbons) that combine to form smog and reduce air quality. In fact, less than 2 percent of what comes out of the tailpipe is other than water vapor and carbon dioxide — neither of which have any effect of air quality.
But California regulators — and now Obama — want to go after that remaining 1-2 percent. No matter how expensive. An economist would call this pursuing diminishing returns. But Obama is not an economist; he is a politician — and he knows that people (most people) will like the sound of what he is proposing.
What they might not like, of course, is the price tag that will come with it.
It ought to be obvious — even to Obama — that in today’s economy, anything that adds significantly to the bottom line cost of a new car is not going to help Detroit sell cars — no matter how “clean” they supposedly are. Fleets of unsold (but clean!) new cars sitting on dealership lots across the country aren’t going to save the planet.
But they may just write the obituary of the American auto industry.
Then there’s the more subtle shivving: California’s intention to categorize carbon dioxide — an inert gas that plays no role whatsoever in the formation of smog — as an “emission” for regulatory purposes.
Unlike other exhaust byproducts of internal combustion (such as unburned hydrocarbons) which can be reduced by making an engine run more efficiently, there is only one way to reduce the output of C02 — burn less fuel. That will mean smaller engines in smaller cars.
If California gets its way and a 40 MPG standard is imposed in the name of reducing C02 “emissions” — it will mean a Stalin-esque purge of virtually every vehicle larger than a current Honda Civic. Trucks and SUVs — which some people actually need for their work, don’t forget — will be as quickly disappeared as Stegosaurus.
Whether 40 MPG cars are a desirable thing is not the issue. The question is: Should California be permitted to force 40 MPG cars down our throats, irrespective of the cost?
The other aspect of this that’s kind of nutty is the idea of allowing California to impose its regulatory will on the rest of the country — even to the extent of superseding the federal EPA. Since when did the California Air Resources Board become, in effect, the Supreme Law Giver when it comes to regulating vehicle emissions for the entire country?
Why should states that don’t have the population density — and unique air quality issues of places such as Los Angeles — have to accept massively costly regulatory poultices designed to deal with California’s problems? Why should a car buyer in, say, Casper, Wyoming, have to spend an extra $500 on his next new car because California bureaucrats have a new friend in Washington?
You’d think the incoming Obama administration would be interested in helping America’s ailing auto industry — not driving a stake through its heart. If GM, Ford and Chrysler die, the odds are so will what’s left of the American economy.