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
"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
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
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.