TCS Daily

Not In the Driver's Seat

By Alexandra Liddy Bourne - August 1, 2002 12:00 AM

Faced with a state budget deficit that exceeds the GNP of most UN members and widespread voter perception that he exacerbated last year's energy crisis, California Gov. Gray Davis last month did what any astute politician would do. He punted the ball of blame to his favorite scapegoat - the auto industry - by signing into law a bill that would require auto makers to drastically reduce the amount of carbon dioxide coming from the tailpipes of every new vehicle sold in California.

Carbon dioxide, you say? Isn't it more commonly known as CO2 - a key component of the air we breathe and a compound absolutely vital to plant growth? Well, yes, you're right, but ...

Gray Davis, as it turns out, is embroiled in a surprisingly tight governor's race with upstart Republican candidate Bill Simon and he desperately needs to patch fences with California's large and affluent environmental community. California environmentalists march in the avant garde of the global Green movement. Maybe it's because of their proximity to the surreality of Southern California and Hollywood, but the Golden State's greenies often see objects falling from the sky long before anyone else - including crews at the nation's top observatories.

One of their main beliefs is that Mother Earth has suddenly heated up and it's mostly the fault of people who drive SUVs, minivans and pickup trucks - the type of vehicles that clog freeways and prevent them from driving their Mercedes, Jaguars and BMWs at autobahn speeds.

They are right in one respect. The Earth is in one of its cyclical warming periods. Temperatures have risen about a half-degree in the past 120 years. But they're wrong in blaming man-made emissions. Most of that temperature rise occurred before 1940 when relatively few cars dotted the vast American landscape and the nation's freeway stretched only the length of Pennsylvania.

In fact, the most accurate measurements available - those by NASA and other legitimate scientific bodies - indicate the Earth's temperature actually has been cooling slightly over the last two decades.

California environmentalists - like most of their counterparts globally - have invested heavy amounts of psyche in the findings of a United Nations panel that uses a worst-case scenario extrapolated from two largely contradictory computer models to project a temperature rise of 8-10 degrees by the end of this century. The computers used, it should be noted, are out-of-date models and less sophisticated than the ones your local weathercasters use to bat about .500 on the week-ahead forecast.

So in reality, Gov. Davis has signed into law a remedy for a phantom problem. Catastrophic global warming simply ain't happening. And only a miniscule fraction of the mild rise that is occurring has anything to do with human activity.

In fact, the vast forest fires that roared across the western United States this summer put more carbon dioxide into the Earth's atmosphere than all the SUVs in America could contribute in a hundred years. Many of those devastating fires were caused by simpleton
environmental policies that ban the thinning of combustible brush and trees on federal lands.

If Gray Davis' blatant act of political posturing brought grief only to his native state, few of the nation's 250 million other citizens would care very much. After all, California voters elected him - and voters, like lobbyists, get what they pay for.

Unfortunately, Davis' opportunism could have disastrous economic effects well beyond California's borders - especially at a time when America is struggling to recover from a near-recession and fight a costly war against a stealth enemy. California constitutes 10 percent of the U.S. market, and auto manufacturers simply can't afford to build one set of cars for the Golden State and another set for the rest of us.

To comply with the new law in California, they'll have to drastically redesign and downsize current models. The cost of that is projected to kick-up new vehicle prices by $3,500 and likely shut production lines for all but the frailest SUVs.

The smaller cars that result from Davis' foolishness will be less crashworthy. Federal studies indicate that the downsized vehicles caused by government's current fuel economy standards cause an additional 2,000 to 4,000 traffic fatalities each year.

Refiners almost surely will have to reformulate current gasoline blends - a switch that will require expensive new equipment, and be passed on to motorists in the form of higher prices at the pump.

As with the other major fiascoes of Davis' reign in Sacramento - the bloated $24-billion budget deficit and the $42 billion in long-term electricity contracts - the total tab for his anti-SUV law won't come due for several years.

By then he may well be starting a second-term in the California governor's mansion and testing the waters for a potential 2004 presidential run. From this perspective, the Democratic Party could do worse - but only if it handed the nomination to Jim Traficant.

Alexandra Liddy Bourne is the Energy, Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture Task Force Director for the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is a bipartisan association of 2400 state legislators.

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