The Truth About Cars » GHG The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Thu, 17 Jul 2014 17:51:25 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » GHG Blind Spot: It Ain’t Easy Being Green Tue, 17 Apr 2012 22:04:40 +0000

When government, media and industry agree that a trend exists, it’s generally taken as fait accompli. After all, these three institutions wield immense cultural power, and together they are more than capable of making any prophecy self-fulfilling. But there’s always a stumbling block: acceptance by the everyday folk who actually make up our society. And when a trend is taken for granted, the ensuing rush to be seen as being in touch with said trend often generates more heat than light. Such is the case with the trend towards “green cars.” Few would deny that they are “the future,” but at the same time, there’s been precious little examination of how this future is to be realized. And when such examination does take place, it tends to raise more questions than it answers.

Case in point: the Union of Concerned Scientists recently published a report examining just how “green” the “greenest” cars available, namely electric cars, are. By examining the average C02 emissions of the various regional power grids, they are able to show on a roughly apples-to-apples basis how carbon-efficient EVs are in comparison to their gasoline-sipping cousins. And their findings show that in broad swathes of the US, pure-electric cars are little better than hybrids like the Prius in terms of average C02 emissions.

This ACS report is something of a dual-edged sword. On the one hand, it makes an important point about EVs: that they are only as environmentally-friendly as the grid from which they draw their power. This fact has long been ignored by policymakers who take the “greenness” of EVs for granted and create uniform national EV stimulus, as if EVs were uniformly “green.” On the other hand, the ACS clearly has a pro-EV agenda, and its report concludes that

There are no areas of the country where electric vehicles have higher global warming emissions than the average new gasoline vehicle.

Given that EV offerings are currently limited to the Compact and Subcompact segments, this is hardly a fair comparison. And since the EPA includes cars like the Bentley Continental GTC as a “subcompact,” a fair comparison would take some real work. To be fair though, the UCS is correct when it points out that 45% of Americans live in the coastal regions where relatively clean grids offer strong environmental incentives for EV use. More importantly, those areas which have dirtier grids tend to be the same regions (the South and Midwest) where geography and development patterns create more practical disincentives for EV use. For this reason, the somewhat disappointing results of the study are unlikely to dramatically hurt the nascent EV market.

Still, this geographical distribution has important consequences for public policy. For one thing, it points out the futility of a nationwide EV incentive program, at least as an environmental policy. Luckily, this reality seems to have taken hold in D.C., where EV-only incentives are being broadened to include multiple fuels and encourage local solutions. On the other hand, the fact that EVs are a hot trend means local governments are often more anxious to show off their trend-awareness than craft sensible policy based on local realities.

For example, Colorado has one of the least “green” grids in the country, and yet its state government has been one of the most aggressive in handing out EV tax credits. Prior to 2010, Colorado allowed Tesla buyers to take up to $42,000 in credits. Today EVs get a $6,000 incentive in addition to the $7,500 (soon to be $10k) federal credit, and a local group has received half a million dollars in federal grants to promote EVs in the state. Given that Colorado-based EVs emit equivalent emissions to a 33 MPG combined gasoline car (think: Hyundai Elantra), this is proof that hopping on a PR-driven bandwagon often outweighs the actual benefits of such “environmental” policies.

But, in a profoundly ironic twist, Colorado may well become a leading market for EVs… and not just because of its generous government incentives either. In fact, Colorado’s relatively dirty grid actually makes it one of the cheaper states in which to operate an EV. In its cost analysis of individual cities, the UCS finds that Colorado Springs’ 2.4 cents-per-mile operating cost for a Nissan Leaf is one of the cheapest in the country, especially when compared to cities with the best emissions scores. Though there’s not enough evidence in this study to support a direct link between the cost and cleanliness of electrical grids, it’s no surprise to find that they do trade off with each other to some extent.

This is one of the key takeaways from the report for the simple reason that running cost, rather than pure environmental benefit, is what will drive the EV market beyond its early adopter niche. And as utilities invest in ever-greener powerplants in hopes of improving the environmental performance of EVs, running costs will rise. And as EVs become more popular, increased demand on the grid will further drive up prices. This tradeoff encapsulates the dilemma of all EV stimulus: the hoped-for environmental benefits are dependent on the mainstream economic viability of EVs, which in turn depends on cheaper (rather than cleaner) power and much, much cheaper EVs. The UCS report’s conclusion attempts to square this circle by pushing EV adoption as the overriding concern, noting

Of course, cleaning up the nation’s electricity production won’t deliver large reductions in the transportation sector’s emissions and oil consumption unless electric vehicles become a market success. While they are now coming onto the market in a much bigger way than ever before, EVs still face many hurdles, including higher up-front costs than gasoline vehicles. Lower fueling costs for EVs, however, provide an important incentive for purchasing them, and our cost analysis of 50 cities across the country shows that EV owners can start saving money immediately on fuel costs by using electricity in place of gasoline.

While this is true enough, it fully ignores how the market works. For one thing, the fuel savings touted in the report are in comparison to an “average gasoline compact vehicle,” and therefore fails to account for most of the market segments. Consumers buy cars that fill their needs, and many Americans need cars larger than a compact. Furthermore, though those savings are estimated to be as much as $1,220 per year (for a Nissan Leaf), these savings do not include amortization of the EV’s up-front cost premium. Consumers will see “immediate savings” on fuel costs, but will be far behind on total ownership cost for years.

Currently the EV market is truly a “green” market, as potential EV consumers are currently motivated by the desire to reduce their carbon emissions. But EVs simply won’t have much of an impact on national emissions until they offer the kind of “green” that actually motivates consumers: money, in the form of real savings. As long as federal and state governments focus, as the UCS has, on carbon emissions, EVs simply won’t find much of a market. If, as the UCS claims, reductions in transportation-sector C02 emissions require mass EV adoption as a prerequisite, the carbon question is currently little more than a distraction. Environmental benefits must give way to economic reality, lest all of the possible “green” benefits of EVs remain a permanent mirage.

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GOP Reps: Did The White House Pressure State-Owned Automakers Into Accepting GHG Standards? Fri, 23 Apr 2010 21:53:44 +0000

With Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) already taking the White House and Treasury to task for possibly helping GM avoid paying the “TARP Tax,” Republican representatives Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Lamar Smith (R-TX) are attacking the auto bailout from another angle, writing a letter to nine automaker CEOs requesting clarification of the negotiating process that led to recently-passed final rules on a ramp-up of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions standards. In their press release on the issue, Issa and Smith note:

It is unclear whether the Administration used leverage created by the possibility of a taxpayer bailout of GM and Chrysler to secure their cooperation and support for new fuel economy standards.  Moreover, there is reason to believe Administration officials used inappropriate tactics to ensure broad based support across the industry. Given the clear conflict-of-interest issues at play, which naturally arise when the government is in a position to pick winners and losers and impact the future viability of private entities, it was imperative that the Administration act with the utmost transparency. Instead, the White House imposed an unprecedented level of secrecy.

Are Issa and Smith on to something, or is this simply a partisan dogpile on an unpopular policy? Hey, this is politics… does it even matter?

Superficially at least, it does seem that Issa and Smith’s fears are well-founded. Negotiations on the emissions-standards bill were held contemporaneously with bailout talks, and the White House announced the deal last May, when both GM and Chrysler were both still in bankruptcy. In theory, it would have been the perfect opportunity to pressure the long-recalcitrant Detroit automakers into accepting an emissions deal that they might have otherwise refused. And with an estimated $52b in costs to the auto industry, Issa and Smith can be forgiven for expecting automakers to put up more of a fight than they did.

On the other hand, the automakers have made it clear that the national emissions deal was actually the lesser of two evils. When California received an EPA waiver allowing its Air Resources Board to increase state emissions standards (which were then adopted by a number of other states), the auto industry was facing the prospect of a multi-state patchwork of emissions standards. And according to the Alliance of Auto Manufacturers’ spokesman Charles Territo, that would have been even worse for automakers than the unification of national standards around California’s more aggressive schedule. Territo tells the DetN:

For years, automakers made no secret of their desire for a national fuel economy/greenhouse program. The regulations finalized earlier this month eliminate the patchwork of conflicting standards and restore federal leadership on this important issue

Moreover, Issa and Smith’s fears are further mitigated by the fact that non-bailed-out automakers like Ford, Honda and Toyota (all AAM members) signed the agreement despite the fact that the White House had no bailout-related leverage over them. The Obama Administration was quick to pick up on this discrepancy, and press secretary Robert Gibbs made it the centerpiece of his defense of the deal, saying:

[Issa and Smith] might have a point if [GM and Chrysler] were the only two companies that were standing behind [President Obama], but Ford has not received any assistance. The notion that you have collectively an industry speaking with one voice and, in this time speaking with a voice for reform, I think that honestly says all you need to hear.

Finally, there’s one more reason to suggest that negotiations involved plenty of give-and-take between officials and automakers: the fact that the new standard is absolutely riddled with loopholes. Had Obama merely strong-armed the automakers, why would he have included such giveaways as the “super credit” which allows super-efficient cars to act as multipliers for overall fleet efficiency?

Unfortunately, even though the evidence suggests that negotiations were above-board (at least by D.C. standards), the White House is lending credence to Issa and Smith’s concerns by refusing to release documents from the negotiations. Their presser states:

According to one participant to these negotiations, the President’s Environment and Energy Czar, Carol Browner, imposed a vow of silence over the negotiations that included representatives from Chrysler and General Motors (GM), the United Autoworkers, and California Air Resources Board Chairman Mary Nichols, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The White House has steadfastly refused to respond to two previous letters asking whether the Energy and Environment Czar violated the mandates of the Presidential Records Act when she orchestrated the secret negotiations.

Does this sound at all familiar? Thanks to past Democratic attacks on Bush Administration secrecy, and an unwillingness to release documents on GHG/CAFE standard negotiations, the Obama Administration is casting doubt on what would otherwise be a fairly airtight defense of a major policy accomplishment. And that plays into widespread fears of the conflicts of interest that seem to be unavoidable when the government involves itself with industry. Straightforward answers to these, and Senator Grassley’s TARP Tax concerns should be forthcoming if the administration hopes to maintain any credibility as an ethical, neutral actor in the economic recovery.

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California Threatens To Move Fuel Economy Goalposts. Again. Wed, 20 Jan 2010 20:52:39 +0000 Doh! (

The Detroit Free Press reports that a recent filing by the California Air Resources Board [Full filing in PDF format here] threatens that a rapid ramp-up to the proposed 35.5 mpg 2016 standard and a reduction in zero-emission vehicle credits are necessary “to ensure California’s continued support.” CARB spokesman Stanley Young explains that “what we wanted to do is convey the level of importance for these two issues,” and that it’s “too early” to say whether California will withdraw from its compromise with the Obama administration. Still, the threat of a California withdrawal should be enough to get some attention in Washington, as Obama adviser David Axelrod has called the emissions compromise one of the administration’s top accomplishments of 2009.

CARB’s first complaint is that, though Obama promised to harmonize national emissions standards with California for 2016, the current proposed rule allows for more leeway in the 2011-2015 model-years.

While the proposed national passenger motor vehicle greenhouse gas standards are of equal stringency to the Pavley [California] regulations in the 2016 model year, they are less stringent than the Pavley standards in the 2011 through 2015 model years.  Consequently, allowing manufacturers to comply with the Pavley regulations in the 2012 through 2015 model years by demonstrating compliance with the national regulations in these model years will result in slightly less reduction in greenhouse gas reductions within California and the individual states that have adopted California’s program.  However, staff believes that nationwide, greenhouse gas emission reductions from the proposed national GHG program – assuming California’s comments on the proposed rulemaking are affirmatively addressed – will be greater than if the Pavley program were implemented without the national GHG program. This occurs because although the proposed national standards are less stringent than California’s in model years 2012 through 2015, the national standards apply to more than twice as many vehicles than are subject to the Pavley regulations.

Though the CARB’s zeal is impressive, messing with the ramp-up to an agreed-upon 2016 standard is overreaching for relatively marginal gains… at a considerably higher cost to the auto manufacturers. If this were the only issue, CARB might well have stayed silent and sucked up the slower ramp-up as part of the cost of compromise. The second issue, however, is far more real.

The CARB filing notes:

EPA believes that electric vehicles (EVs), plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), and fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) have the potential to reduce greenhouse gases more significantly than any commercially-available technologies, and ARB fully agrees with this.  EPA is, therefore, proposing that additional credits be given to these advanced technologies in the 2012 through 2016 model years, in order to encourage their development.

These advanced technology credits would take the form of multipliers in the range of 1.2 to 2.0, allowing an EV, PHEV, or FCV to count as more than one vehicle during the calculation of a manufacturer’s fleet average CO2 level to determine compliance with the applicable footprint-based standard.  These multipliers would not be applied when calculating the actual footprint-based
CO2 standard to which a manufacturer must comply.  (Footprint is determined by multiplying the vehicle’s wheelbase by the vehicle’s average track width.  The greenhouse gas standards being proposed by EPA are expressed as mathematical functions that depend on vehicle footprint.)

In addition, EPA is proposing to assign a value of zero grams per mile of CO2 for EVs and for the electric portion of PHEV operation, when including these vehicles in a manufacturer’s average.   EPA acknowledges that there are =upstream CO2 emissions from electricity generation, which are produced during EV and PHEV charging.  Similarly there are upstream emissions from hydrogen production for FCVs.  However, EPA feels that the significant greenhouse gas emission reductions that may be achieved from this technology outweighs the dis-benefits of ignoring these emissions within this  timeframe.

Staff agrees with EPA’s goal of encouraging the early development and production of advanced technology vehicles.  However, staff believes that the approach proposed by EPA could allow manufacturers to earn unreasonably high numbers of credits, thereby potentially reducing the overall GHG reductions achieved by the national program and delaying the implementation of improved greenhouse gas technologies on conventional vehicles.

Consequently, staff believes that EPA’s Final Rule must strike a better balance between advanced vehicle development and protecting greenhouse gas reductions by assigning average lifecycle emissions to these vehicles, and restricting credits to EVs and FCVs only.

Having looked into the credit multiplier loophole, we agree wholeheartedly that it’s rife for abuse, especially in respect to Flex Fuel (ethanol) Vehicle credits. On the whole, the “super credit” program incentivizes automakers to build zero- and low-emissions vehicles without regard for marketability, to make up for a fleet that could be otherwise way out of compliance. Under this system the environment and consumers lose out equally.

Still, California is walking on thin ice. Politically, the Obama administration can’t afford to see one of its few major accomplishments of the last year fall apart. But then it can’t afford to burden the auto industry it now owns a stake in with CARB-approved toughness either. Meanwhile, other states are weighing in with concerns about implementing the new GHG emissions standards. Hell, California’s own Energy Commission is asking the EPA to delay the implementation of GHG standards entirely. This is why they call politics the art of the compromise.

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