Clean Air Villain of the Month

January 2000


George Orwell is alive and well in the new millennium -- at least at General Motors Corporation.

Consider this quote from GM Vice Chairman Harry Pearce, as reported by Associated Press on January 1:

"If we are ever going to deliver true environmental benefits with lower emissions... we've got to convince the federal government to relax the (nitrogen oxide) standards."

How's that again, Harry?

The AP story was about a GM "test" car, built with multi-million-dollar help from taxpayers, to be unveiled officially at the Detroit Auto Show on January 9. The new GM "Precept" reportedly will use a small diesel engine linked to electric motors. It will be highly fuel-efficient. Unfortunately, according to AP, the GM vehicle would flunk the strict new tailpipe pollution standards recently announced by President Clinton.

No wonder GM has fumed for months about the new "Tier 2" pollution standards. While rival Ford was declaring that it "is committed to low-emission technologies," GM was denouncing the standards as "arbitrary and capricious," "unlawful," and "invalid." GM's brake-squealing prose embarrassed other major car companies, which were trying to make peace with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (It should be noted that Honda and Toyota have developed fuel-efficient hybrid-electric cars -- without U.S. taxpayer support -- that are expected to meet the new clean-air standards.)

At least GM has a consistent track record when it comes to blowing smoke about environmental standards. In the 1950s and 1960s GM sparked efforts to suppress emission control technology. The company opposed the 1970 Clean Air Act, which set national tailpipe pollution standards. GM revved up the lobbying engine in the 1970s and 1980s in an effort to weaken those standards. In the 1990s it tried to block Northeastern states from adopting stricter California pollution standards, and put the pedal to the metal in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent California from toughening its standards. GM also has tried to put the brakes on stricter national health standards for smog and soot.

So while GM tries to paint itself "green" at this winter's auto shows, the real question is whether the company will follow through with its implied threat -- and file suit against the new Tier 2 auto standards.