Auto emissions bill struggles to regain momentum

By Jim Wasserman, The Associated Press
Friday June 14, 2002

SACRAMENTO — One month after dramatically losing momentum at the doorstep of victory, environmentalists aiming to curb California auto emissions are remobilizing to gain a handful of votes for a showdown expected by Aug. 31. 

“Every major environmental group is on board and putting it as a priority,” says Elisa Lynch, global warming campaign director of the San Francisco-based Bluewater Network. “We all have big memberships and we’re letting folks know.” 

The coalition vows to regain a hard-won political edge secured with two successful votes to make California the nation’s first state to fight global warming by restricting auto exhaust. But a necessary third vote is stalemated after an auto industry campaign mobilized public opposition and scared off several legislative supporters. 

Says Bluewater’s Lynch, “We’re actually pretty confident we can get there in the end. It’s going to take a little more work than we thought.” 

Bluewater is targeting 10 Democratic Assembly members who abstained last January when the bill, AB1058, passed the Assembly by two votes. It’s also eyeing wavering initial supporters, including Democratic Assembly members John Dutra, who represents a Fremont auto-assembly plant owned by Toyota and General Motors, and Joe Canciamilla of Martinez, whose district includes oil refineries. 

A consortium of 13 global automakers and California’s 1,600 new car and truck dealerships remains equally determined after its last-ditch strategy to delay the Assembly from ratifying Senate changes to the bill proved successful. 

“If they want to take the fight through the 31st of August, we’ll stay with them through the 31st of August,” says Kris Kiser, vice president of state affairs at the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. 

“We’ll stay on the air as long as it takes,” Kiser says. 

Within two weeks the alliance will roll out another television campaign featuring celebrity California car dealer Cal Worthington. The dealer’s May ads produced 100,000 letters, e-mails and phone calls to legislators and Gov. Gray Davis, says Bill George, vice president of Sacramento-based KPC Communications. 

The aim is to raise more public skepticism — and new calls and letters — over a bill that opponents call a “backdoor” attempt to limit sport utility vehicles, minivans and pickup trucks that make up half of new vehicle sales nationally. 

For both sides, eyeing the nation’s largest vehicle market, it’s become a war of attrition and focus while the 2002 legislative session rolls into its final 2 1/2 months. 

Introduced by Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, the bill gives automakers until at least 2009 to begin trimming carbon dioxide emissions from vehicle exhaust. Unlike previous state laws that regulate poisonous exhaust gases, carbon dioxide is a natural, nontoxic byproduct of fuel combustion.  

But many scientists consider it a “greenhouse gas” contributing to a gradual warming of the earth.