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Sierra Magazine

Shell's Game | Car Talks | Eco-Thug: Billy Tauzin

Car Talks:
Motown Walks, Detroit stalls on a solution to global warming.

by B. J. Bergman

Perhaps it was, as one oil man called it, "a nutty idea to begin with": 30 scientists, environmentalists, policy wonks, and executives from the auto and oil industries banging heads trying to figure out how to slow global warming.

When the United States signed the Earth Summit Climate Treaty, it obligated itself to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels. The most logical place to start was to address emissions from cars and trucks, the largest contributors to global warming.

The presidential panel designated to hash out the problem was burdened not only with a ponderous name ("The Policy Dialogue Advisory Committee to Assist in the Development of Measures to Significantly Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Personal Motor Vehicles," nicknamed "Car Talks" for sanity's sake), but with the sharply divergent agendas of its members. Few observers were surprised when Car Talks ended up spinning its wheels.

"It was a very difficult, unpleasant effort," says Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club's Global Warming and Energy Program. Tapped in 1994 by President Clinton, Becker joined the group with modest hopes that it could find common ground to cut carbon dioxide emissions. "But over the course of the year," says Becker, "it became obvious the auto industry would not agree with us on anything reasonable."

"Us" included other public-interest advocates, state and local government officials, and a range of energy and transportation experts, all of whom pushed for higher corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards. Back in 1975, ignoring the automakers' dire predictions of a sub-subcompact America, Congress gave them a decade to double the efficiency of their fleets to an average of 27.5 miles per gallon. Despite its protestations, Detroit managed to hit that mark, but has idled there ever since. The Sierra Club has long contended that fuel efficiency standards should and could be boosted to 45 mpg for cars and 34 mpg for trucks. While that goal was embraced by candidate Bill Clinton, the President--who has the authority to hike the standards on his own--has thus far been unwilling to do battle with Detroit.

If Clinton meant for Car Talks to get him off the political hook, the strategy failed. "The auto guys resisted talking about CAFE from day one," recounts Becker. Only in the final hours did the automakers-- the Big Three of GM, Chrysler, and Ford plus delegates from BMW and Honda--offer a substitute proposal, to curb driving by boosting gasoline taxes $1.50 per gallon over 30 years. Predictably, oil- industry reps at the table blew a gasket.

In the end, the committee majority abandoned hope of reaching a compromise agreement with the recalcitrant industries. In December, 17 Car Talk panelists, including state and local public officials and transportation specialists, sent President Clinton a majority report recommending that fuel economy standards be raised annually beginning in 1998, and that other steps be taken to encourage the use of electric and low-emission vehicles, the development of alternative fuels, and a shift to other forms of transportation. But boosting CAFE standards to 45 mpg, the report emphasizes, is the most important single step.

"In addition to achieving reductions in emissions from the transportation sector," conclude the majority, "we believe that these recommendations will also reduce air pollution including urban smog, save consumers money, create jobs, and cut U.S. reliance on imported oil."

Industry execs, on the other hand, want to move at a far more leisurely pace. After Car Talks broke up, for example, a top official of the American Petroleum Institute exhorted the Clinton administration "to avoid any temptation to adopt mandatory requirements." The auto industry also responded to the collapse of the talks by convincing Representative Fred Upton (R-Mich.) to sponsor legislation to revoke the President's authority to unilaterally raise CAFE standards.

The upshot, says Becker, is that "we produced a very good report that makes clear that if the President is serious, he's got to raise CAFE standards. Nothing else will curb global warming as much."

And so Car Talks comes down to a single question: is President Clinton willing to sit in the driver's seat, or is he just along for the ride?

Eco-Thug: Billy Tauzin

by Paul Rauber

He is, says the New Orleans Times-Picayune, "the lawmaker environmentalists love to hate." The former leader of the conservative southern Democrats known as the "Blue Dogs" (he switched parties last year, angered by President Clinton's defense of the Environmental Protection Agency's budget), the congressman from Louisiana and godfather of the property rights movement, W. J. "Billy" Tauzin is the Eco-Thug's Eco-Thug. If Sierra's bimonthly award hadn't existed before, it would have had to be invented just for him.

All national polls to the contrary, Tauzin fancies that his brand of extreme anti-environmentalism is the wave of the future. "The momentum has shifted our way," he boasted to the Times-Picayune. "It's just heating up right now, and it's going to get hotter. We're ready to take them [environmentalists] on again."

When Tauzin "takes on" environmentalists over wetlands protection, endangered species, and clean-water laws, it is in the interest of the oil and chemical companies who fund his campaigns. In 1994, corporations working to gut the Clean Water Act gave him more than $74,000, an amount exceeded only by their donations to Newt Gingrich himself. Since 1989, Tauzin has collected over a quarter of a million dollars from these corporations.

Tauzin claims that he likes critters as much as the next person--except when they have a conflict with anyone attempting to make a fast buck. Listening to him, you would think that endangered species were driving humans to extinction. "When you lose your job in the state of Washington because of an owl, when you lose your shrimp boat in Louisiana because of a turtle, or you lose your home in California because of a rat," he says, "it's time for private-property owners in this country to fight back."

Tauzin's favored way of "fighting back" against abusive shrimp and kangaroo rats is by expanding the legal concept of "takings." In 1994, he introduced the "Private Property Owners' Bill of Rights," which would have the government pay property owners when environmental regulations deprive them of 50 percent or more of the "fair market value" of their property. His scheme, warned the attorneys general from 33 states and territories who wrote to Congress to oppose his bill, "would write into law the dubious principle that the government must pay polluters not to pollute."

Congress wisely punted on Tauzin's takings proposal, but the gentleman from Louisiana still wasn't through with the vanishing wildlife. He attempted to amend the Interior appropriations bill so as to strip habitat-protection provisions from the Endangered Species Act. He even sponsored an amendment to bar volunteer participation in the National Biological Survey, claiming that it would allow environmentalists to provide "inaccurate information" about the presence of endangered species on private property.

Tauzin's commitment to accurate information was put to the test when a congressional hearing on wetlands regulation was scheduled for Belle Chasse, Louisiana. At the time, Tauzin had been promoting a constituent named John Chaconas as a victim of federal wetlands policy. It turned out, however, that Chaconas planned to testify in Belle Chasse in support of wetland regulation: "My family and I have been played as pawns by politicians to justify their opposition to current wetlands law," he said in his written statement.

Chaconas was promptly disinvited from testifying at the hearing, a move widely publicized by the Sierra Club. Tauzin was furious. "I have in my possession," Tauzin wrote to CNN, "very specific, incriminating evidence that the Sierra Club is orchestrating this story, and through its actions, may have conspired with certain federal employees to commit a federal crime."

No such evidence was ever presented, and Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope demanded an apology. "All we have done," Pope said, "is to attempt to gather facts and help the Chaconas family expose Tauzin's bullying tactics toward his constituents--whom he has tried to silence simply because they do not agree with his interpretation of their plight." No apology was forthcoming.

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact for more information.

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