Car Companies Embrace a Different Kind of Climate Change, Oil Industry Threatens to Sue

, former deputy director, Clean Vehicles | February 3, 2012, 11:33 am EDT
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When I think about climate change, the images that come quickly to mind are of melting polar ice caps, heat waves, droughts, and severe flooding. This kind of climate change, or global warming, is one of the biggest problems UCS is trying to help slow and ultimately stop. 

Scientists Examine Melting Ice

Melting glaciers are a disturbing part of global warming, but a thawing of the auto industry’s opposition to clean car standards is more than welcome.

But, last week I was in Los Angeles to testify in front of the California Air Resources Board (ARB) about their package of advanced clean car standards, and I got to see first-hand a completely different kind of climate change. If you will pardon my stretching the pun to the limit, I saw the results of a global warming of attitudes on the part of automakers, a willingness to step up and support California’s strong standards that will require cleaner gasoline cars and over 1 million electric cars in California through 2025. In sharp contrast, representatives of the oil industry threatened to sue the state over a portion of the requirements.

Worldwide Auto Industry Supports California’s Clean Car Standards

Representatives from automaker after automaker—whether their headquarters were in the U.S., Japan, Germany, or South Korea—stood up in front of the ARB and declared their support for strong global warming pollution standards, smog standards, electric car standards, and hydrogen infrastructure requirements. This stands in sharp contrast to the last decade when automakers were suing California and other states to try to stop these kinds of standards from being implemented. And this is nothing like automaker efforts to argue to the U.S. Supreme Court that regulators had no legal right to protect public health and welfare by setting global warming pollution standards (the Supreme Court rejected those arguments).

Automakers did voice their concerns with some of the provisions. And, of course, automaker support did not come without a price. As was noted by the ARB chair at the hearing, Detroit-based automakers got a big break on global warming pollution standards for pickups and other vehicles that qualify as “trucks” and some Japan-based automakers got a big break on their electric car requirements. We still think these provisions should be fixed, but that should not diminish the historic nature of strong clean car standards being supported by the auto industry for the first time.

This is the kind of climate change we need.

Oil Industry Representatives Threaten Lawsuit

Unlike the auto industry, the oil industry’s attitude has not thawed. They still seem more than willing to stay stuck in the 20th century, keeping Americans addicted to oil despite opportunities to make a profit elsewhere.

Oil industry representatives threatened to sue California over a provision that would require them to invest in infrastructure to supply hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles if nobody else does. The ARB expects to see about 10,000 hydrogen fuel cell cars on California roads by 2018, and as many as 170,000 by 2025 as a result of the clean car standards. Analysis by Energy Independence Now indicates that oil companies can make a profit from selling hydrogen after just a few years. Thus, all that oil companies are being asked to do is to invest about $4 million dollars during the first two years of the program in something that can deliver a long term return on their investment—that’s just one half hour of the annual profits of the top three U.S. oil companies (see biofuels link below for background on oil industry profits). And they don’t even have to make the investment if someone else does.

This unwillingness to step up on global warming, to invest in America’s future, is not news from the oil industry. We’ve seen it on biofuels and tar sands, just to name a few. But it has to change. The clock is ticking on global warming, unhealthy air, and America’s oil addiction. Just as we’ve said of electric utilities, oil companies need to follow the lead of the auto industry and shift from being a part of the problem to becoming part of the solution.

We’ve got a plan that would require oil companies to step up alongside of the many others who are intertwined in America’s oil addiction. Check out our work and keep your eyes open for more to come this spring and summer.


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  • T. Boone

    OK, I looked at your “plan”. Looks like more of the same old same old. You are even still daydreaming of cellulosic biofuels that do not exist and probably never will. Oh, and gobbing more weatherstripping around our doors and windows on top of what is already there. And cheerleading EPA’s choking of our economy until it turns blue and stops twitching.

    If you succeed in extorting “about $4 million dollars during the first two years” from oil companies, as you intend, what do you propose to accomplish with it (besides paying yourselves and failed “cellulosic biofuels researchers” big, fat salaries, that is)?

    • Thank you for your comment T. Boone. There’s a lot there in a small space, but here are a couple of initial thoughts.

      Interestingly, your perspective on weather stripping is not surprising. A 2010 study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that a lot of people have inaccurate perceptions on energy usage. The study surveyed more than 500 Americans and found that, on average, they under estimated potential energy savings in their homes by a factor of three! (S. Z. Attari et al., “Public Perceptions of Energy Consumption and Savings,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107, no. 37 (2010): 16054–16059.)

      But I think the challenge is even bigger than that. Your concern over the solutions in our plan being the “same old same old” really highlight for me one of the major challenges we face in U.S. energy policy today. At UCS, we call it the “flavor of the month club” or the “silver bullet bandwagon.” Basically, every four to eight years many people jump from one flavor to the next instead of having a comprehensive plan for our future. Our nation seems to switch back and forth between thinking that we can just stay stuck on the fossil fuels of the 19th and 20th centuries (coal and oil) and thinking one magic solution will solve all of our problems (e.g. natural gas for cars, or ethanol from corn).

      The reality is that the problems we face are too big and too complex for either. We can’t rely on one single solution and we can’t ignore things that work, even if they seem like the “same old same old.” We need a steady approach, a comprehensive, long term national energy policy that commits us to cut our projected oil dependence in half by 2030. We need a portfolio of solutions. Some exciting ones, like cellulosic biofuels or electric cars tied to renewable resources like wind and solar power, have real risks, but if we invest in them for the long run they can pay off big time. Others, like more efficient engines and hybrid powertrains, we already know how to do and just need to put to work as soon as possible. And still others, like boosting the efficiency of homes and businesses, may seem boring, but they are both incredibly effective and cost effective.

    • One last quick note: Let me put to rest your concerns over the great the work at EPA (not to mention the California Air Resources Board and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). I’d encourage you to check out the details behind EPA’s and California’s efforts to cut pollution and protect public health that will also save consumers $50 billion in 2030 alone. (;

      As my colleague’s previous blog pointed out, shifting consumer expenditures from gasoline to more productive parts of the economy will create jobs and strengthen our economic future ( Ceres published an analysis on this very point, showing that the new fuel efficiency and global warming pollution standards will create nearly 500,000 new U.S. jobs by 2030 while boosting gross economic output and personal incomes ( And California’s analysis their advanced clean cars program shows that their rules will help create 21,000 new jobs by 2025 alone.

      Don’t buy into the talking points. The reality is that protecting public health and improving national energy security is good for our economy.