Time for automakers to get on clean air bandwagon


Albert Einstein once defined insanity as the practice of doing the same thing over and over, with the same negative results each time.

By that definition, the world’s leading automakers are crazy. They have fought every single anti-smog tactic ever proposed by California authorities, and lost every time.

Naturally, they are in the midst of trying again. Startlingly, they argue that an early April decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide are pollutants subject to government regulation actually strengthens their case against California’s pioneering campaign to lessen global climate change.

Let’s get this straight: California has special standing under the federal Clean Air Act to create air pollution standards tougher than whatever might be imposed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Greenhouse gases are now legally classed by the Supreme Court as a form of air pollution. How can this combination possibly strengthen the automakers’ case in either of the lawsuits where they are now fighting the state?

In one of those legal fights, the state is suing the world’s six largest car and truck companies for damaging California’s natural resources and requiring major outlays of cash for firefighting and other resource protection because cars emit excessive carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases that have helped cause global warming.

Now the car companies claim the Supreme Court action bolsters their effort to get this state lawsuit - pursued equally by the last two attorneys general - dismissed. The automakers’ lawyer, Theodore Boutrous, told a federal judge in San Francisco that by classing greenhouses gases as pollutants covered by the Clean Air Act, the court was saying “the authority to regulate (those) gases lies with the federal government. This is consistent with our position that global warming is an issue that needs to be addressed at the national and international level by federal policy-makers.”

That, of course, ignores the California exception written into the landmark Clean Air Act when it first passed in 1971 and contained in every subsequent revision and renewal. It also ignores the fact that state officials acted against greenhouse gases only after many years of complete inaction by the federal government.

And it flouts the fact that every court decision since the advent of primitive smog control devices in the early 1960s has allowed California to impose whatever rules it felt necessary to clean up its air - so long as requirements can be met by available technology.

This has led to the creation of everything from catalytic converters to the hybrid cars and trucks that are proliferating today. Each such rule has led to increased profits by carmakers who developed the best ways to meet new requirements, so it’s legitimate to wonder why General Motors, Toyota, Nissan, DaimlerChrysler and the rest keep fighting new rules whenever they pass.

But that’s exactly what they’re doing today, challenging the state’s greenhouse gas restrictions both in the San Francisco lawsuit and another in Fresno, where they seek to take the entire matter of greenhouse gases out of state hands.

If precedent means anything, the carmakers will lose at least in their Fresno action, where the Supreme Court decision appears to greatly strengthen the state’s right to regulate carbon dioxide and other gases. The San Francisco case where the state seeks large damages seems more iffy, mainly because it appears difficult to determine exactly either how much the consequences of greenhouse gases have cost state government or what portion of those gases can be attributed to cars and trucks.

The logical course for automakers facing these facts and the new Supreme Court ruling would be to cease questioning the state’s authority to regulate its air quality and instead concentrate on polluting less.

But logic has never dictated automakers’ responses to smog regulation of all kinds. Rather, by Einstein’s definition, their responses have been insane and there’s no sign they will suddenly grow rational.

Elias is author of the current book “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It,”now available in an updated second edition. His e-mail address is