Politics & Policy

Washington to Detroit: Drop Dead!

Michigan vs. the Republican Al Gore.

Detroit Driving south on I-75 through Detroit’s automotive landscape, a new sign stands out in a roadside forest of billboards advertising cars, casinos, and fast food. The scowling face of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger glares down at commuters accompanying bold text that reads: “Arnold to Michigan: Drop Dead.”

#ad#The ad, paid for by Michigan Congressman Joe Knollenberg, exposes a split in the Republican fraternity on global warming. “We picked on Schwarzenegger because. . . he has become the Republican Al Gore,” says Knollenberg, who represents Oakland County north of Detroit. As coastal Republicans from Arnold to Dubya flirt with the new Congress’s anti-automobile eco-jihad, midwestern conservatives like Knollenberg want to remind them that politically expedient fuel-economy laws have real consequences to American jobs and industry.

The billboard plays off Schwarzenegger’s support for strict limits on California auto emissions — a de facto mandate for higher auto fuel mileage — but it is also timed with current House Energy and Commerce Committee hearings in Washington, the Democratic party’s first step towards drafting legislation to combat alleged global warming.

For blue-state liberals like Democratic speaker Nancy Pelosi and committee members like Ed Markey (D., Mass.), strengthening fuel-economy mandates — via so-called CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards) — is the easy road to green salvation as it targets auto interests far from their constituents.

Never mind that CAFÉ has been a failure. Since 1975, when CAFÉ mandated auto fuel economy (now 27.5 mpg for cars and 22 for light trucks), U.S. fuel consumption has doubled and dependence on foreign oil has grown from 35 to 59 percent. Cheap fuel, not random government mileage numbers, has driven consumers’ choice of vehicle.

Now Washington wants to address CAFÉ’s error by legislating more of it.

President Bush proposes increasing CAFÉ standards by four percent a year with the goal of decreasing fuel consumption 20 percent over the next ten years. But only in Europe — where gas is taxed upwards of $5 a gallon — has gas consumption declined.

Washington politicos, however, want no part of gas taxes.

“The last time gas taxes were discussed was when Al Gore proposed raising them 50 cents in 1993,” says Matt Dinkel, spokesman for committee member Mike Doyle (D., Pa.). “Right after that, Democrats lost control of Congress. No one’s brought it up since.”

So rather than sacrificing their careers to save the planet, Democrats offer up the auto industry instead. “This is a healthy dose of coastal snobbery,” says Knollenberg chief of staff Trent Wisecup. “Democrats think the path of least resistance is through Detroit.”

Big Auto is an easy political foil, and one that George Bush — much to the displeasure of Knollenberg Republicans — hasn’t resisted either (since man-made CO2 only accounts for two percent of the greenhouse effect, according to MIT’s Richard Lindzen — and the auto sector just ten percent of that, one may wonder why the obsession with cars). As experience shows, however, fuel-economy politics impact both lives lost and lost jobs.

That’s why Knollenberg is paying for billboards.

According to a 2001 National Academy of Sciences study, producing smaller, lighter vehicles to meet CAFÉ “resulted in an additional 1,300 to 2,600 traffic fatalities” per year. And, because Detroit has traditionally relied on big cars for their profits, Big Three automakers bore the brunt of the new fuel rules in the 1980s, leading to the loss of thousands of jobs.

As the industry struggles to return to profitability again today, the prospect of more CAFÉ-related job losses is mobilizing a long-time Democratic ally in opposition to the party’s green ambitions. Conspicuous at the Big Three’s table Wednesday was Ron Gettelfinger, president of the United Auto Workers and a critic of new mileage standards.

CAFE “drives a wedge right through the Democrat’s coalition of greens and unions,” says Knollenberg spokesman Wisecup. Toyota’s hybrid cars have made it the darling of Gore Democrats, but Wisecup notes that Big Three employment still dwarfs U.S.-based Japanese auto jobs: 400,000 to 34,000.

Knollenberg Republicans want Bush and the Democrats to make all transportation sectors responsible for carbon-dioxide cuts — from airlines to FedEx. If too many hornets’ nests get whacked, the resulting furor will likely kill the global-warming bill entirely.

Failing this, automakers will continue to lobby for more U.S. ethanol subsidies — not because ethanol is a viable fuel (a gallon of ethanol is more expensive than gas and only goes two-thirds as far) — but because of an arcane loophole that helps ethanol-capable vehicles game the CAFÉ numbers.

CAFE failure. . . targeting of vulnerable industries. . . ethanol loopholes. . . . As this strange political dance reveals, Democrats and Arnold Republicans are no more interested in sound global-warming solutions that they were sound global-warming science.

Welcome to the political funhouse called global warming.

Henry Payne — Henry Payne is the auto critic for the Detroit News.

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