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The Planet

Planet Alerts

The Planet, December 1995, Volume 2, number 9

  • Automakers Cripple Car Talks
  • Horseshoe Crabs in Extreme Peril

Automakers Cripple Car Talks

After a year of stonewalling, the Big Three automakers (Chrysler, GM and Ford) sabotaged presidentially commissioned talks aimed at reducing greenhouse gases from cars and light trucks. Activists say automakers "blew up" the advisory sessions, informally known as "Car Talks," by trying to cut increased fuel economy standards from its final report.

"The auto industry has no shame," said Dan Becker, the Club's global warming and energy director, and presidential appointee to the panel representing the Sierra Club. "By blocking the commission's recommendations, they've placed polluter greed before planetary health."

Ironically, the end of Car Talks came as the preeminent panel of atmospheric scientists reported their conclusions that global warming has begun and that pollution from cars, factories and power plants is the major cause.

Formally known as corporate average fuel economy, CAFE standards are set by either Congress or the President for cars and light trucks sold in the United States. Mandated by Congress in response to the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, CAFE standards have remained largely unchanged since 1985. Activists say these standards have saved the United States 3 million barrels of oil daily and purchasers of new cars an average of $3,300, but that progress is still needed -- especially since technology exists to produce safe cars with far better fuel efficiency.

Despite automaker obstructionism, Car Talks' environmental representatives formed a coalition with state and local government officials and businesses to file a majority report to the president. The report recommends raising CAFE standards to 45 miles per gallon (from 27.7 mpg. for cars and 20.7 mpg. for light trucks) as part of a policy package that includes promoting alternative transportation and cleaner-burning fuels. "The report demonstrates that CAFE cuts more greenhouse pollution than anything else we can do," said Becker. "That's why Sierra Club calls CAFE the Ôbiggest single step to curbing global warming.'"

While the Big Three fought a stronger CAFE at Car Talks, they also lobbied Congress to limit existing standards. Republican whip Tom DeLay of Texas introduced a one-year CAFE freeze in the transportation appropriations bill that sailed through the House. The unusual alliance of Sens. Richard Bryan (D-Nev.), Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) and Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) killed the freeze in the Senate. But the conference committee restored the rider by a one-vote margin.

Emboldened CAFE opponents are now back for more. H.R. 2200 in the House would repeal the president's power to set CAFE standards. "The auto industry seems unconcerned by global warming and our addiction to oil," said Becker. "But we can't let them win. Only public support can keep CAFE moving."

To take action: Call your representative and urge him/her to oppose H.R. 2200. Emphasize that CAFE works, and should be strengthened, not weakened -- especially given that the presidential commission's new report says increased CAFE standards will cut greenhouse gas emissions, save consumers money at the pump and keep oil imports down.

For more information: Contact Ellen McBarnette, Ann Mesnikoff or Dan Becker in the Washington, D.C., office at (202) 547-1141.

Horseshoe Crabs in Extreme Peril

Time may be running out for one of the Earth's most resilient species. A harmless, slow-moving relative of the spider, the horseshoe crab has been lumbering about the world's oceans and beaches for some 250 million years. The crab plays a vital role in the life cycles of migratory birds and threatened loggerhead sea turtles. It has also proven key to AIDS, cancer and Alzheimer's research. But overharvesting in North America is decimating this ancient species, and the repercussions of its loss could be profound.

The largest concentrations of horseshoe crabs occur in the Delaware Estuary. During May's full moon, hundreds of thousands of horseshoe crabs move ashore to mate and lay more than 100 tons of eggs. These protein-rich eggs sustain vast numbers of migratory shorebirds coming from as far away as Tierra del Fuego and give them energy to reach their final breeding grounds. Wildlife biologists estimate that without this food supply, up to 80 percent of some populations of shorebirds passing through the estuary would face obliteration. Because the crab is also a major food source for juvenile loggerhead sea turtles, environmentalists are concerned that its loss would precipitate the loggerhead's extinction along the Eastern seaboard. Today, horseshoe crabs are important to epidemiological research and are bled for an agent found in their highly oxygenated blue blood, then returned to the ocean alive.

Yet the overharvesting of crabs for eel and conch bait has brought horseshoe fisheries to near-collapse. In 1990, there was a spawning population of 1,240,000 crabs in the Delaware Estuary. Today, there are fewer than 350,000.

"An eeler will pay as much as 85 cents per crab for bait and then ship his catch to markets in Europe and Japan," said Tim O'Connor of the Sierra Club Atlantic Coast Ecoregion Program. "Ironically, the horseshoe crab has been named a national treasure in Japan and is protected against the kind of abuse that is going on in the United States."

O'Connor said time is critical because the winter horseshoe crab harvest is fast approaching. "The horseshoe crab has been saving us for a long time now," he said. "It's time to return the favor."

To take action: Write the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the National Marine Fisheries Service urging them to make horseshoe crab survival the highest priority and to develop a long-term management plan. Address letters to: Jack Dunnigan, Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, 1776 Massachusetts Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20036; Tel: (202) 289-6400; Fax (202) 289-6051; e-mail Dick Schaffer, National Marine Fisheries Service, Universal South Bldg., 1825 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20235; Tel: (301) 713-2334.

If you live in Maryland, New Jersey, Virginia or Delaware, please ask your governor for an immediate moratorium on horseshoe crab harvesting until a long-range protection plan is implemented.

For more information: Contact Tim O'Connor at (302) 697-7466; e-mail:

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