California and Cap and Trade

Seven years down the road and auto makers are in favor of the tougher California emissions standards the industry’s fought every step of the way?

Mouthpieces who were moaning less than a month ago that the law California’s tried to implement since 2002 “would basically kill the industry”, are talking to the Environmental Protection Administration about cutting a deal?

Anyone else see a trap?

In legislative parlance, it’s called “loving a bill to death.” Strategically, it entails proclaiming support for a wonderful idea that would be even more wonderful if only this one tiny change were made, and then declaring it perfect but needing a little tweak. And then saying you could support it whole-heartedly if it were amended just once more.

Eventually, the bill receives so much affection that the original sponsors can barely recognize it, and it dies.

That’s why California officials need to keep their ears to the ground while quiet talks that could result in new national emissions standards go on between the EPA and auto makers.

While those talks are going on, the Obama administration has included revenue from a “cap and trade” provision in its budget proposal.

Under such policies, the government sets a cap on the total amount of pollution that can be emitted and issues companies allowances, giving them permission to put a set amount of junk into the air. Companies that want to pollute more can buy credits from companies that pollute less – that’s where the trade comes in.

Those who favor cap and trade say it works well in hard economic times, as witnessed by the falling price for credits in European countries where the system’s already in place.

Critics counter that lower prices removes the financial incentive for companies to invest in cleaner technologies.

The Obama administration likely would have considered cap and trade anyway — it’s an issue the president campaigned on and a system that can bring the government money when credits are auctioned.

Including it in the budget dovetails also with administration energy and environment chief Carol M. Browner’s recent statements that she’s interested in a single national emissions standard.

Lack of one was another strawman the auto industry threw out in opposing the California standards, which would boost fuel economy to 42 miles per gallon as the federal goal remained at 35.

If automakers didn’t want to produce two versions of the same model, they could instead make one lower-polluting model. After all, 14 states representing half the country’s population joined in a lawsuit to try to force the Bush EPA to allow the tougher California standards.

“We’ve been supportive of a strong national standard, rather than having to comply with the burden of a patchwork of standards state by state,” General Motors spokesman Greg Martin told the Washington Post this week.

Really? Because back in January, GM’s official concern was that discussions take into account “the development pace of new technologies, alternative fuels and market and economic factors.” That sounds suspiciously like “I love you, but …”

Back in January, it looked like the EPA could complete its review of the California standards in time for them to apply to the 2011 model year.

Seems it wouldn’t be hard for automakers, in a spirit of compromise discovered only after the White House changed hands, to figure out a way to extend that yet again. They’ve already succeeded in delaying scheduled increases in federal standards for decades.

Meanwhile in California, home to two of the dirtiest air districts in the country, health-care costs would continue to climb as residents choke under the thick brown summer haze caused primarily by tailpipe pollution.

Enough already.

If the auto industry expects more help from the American taxpayers, it needs to give up something in return, such as dropping its time-honored resistance to cleaner air.