National Press Club

Enviro Advocates Endorse Auto Bailout Provision at Newsmaker Panel

December 10, 2008 | By Mark Schoeff Jr.

Environmental advocates endorsed a provision in the proposed auto industry bailout that would prevent carmakers from challenging states like California that set higher greenhouse gas emission standards than are mandated by federal law.

The elevated requirements would help cleanse the air of harmful pollutants and should be implemented, according to participants in a Dec. 9 Club Newsmaker.

“It’s time for car companies to innovate, not litigate,” said Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch. “They have fought a tooth-and-nail campaign from coast-to-coast to block these standards. They have lost every time because they’re wrong. It’s high time to put down their guns.”

O’Donnell said that efforts to improve air quality have stalled. Greenhouse gases and toxic particulates produced by vehicles are leading to chronic diseases and fatal ailments like cancer.

“The problem is only getting worse in terms of emissions,” O’Donnell said.

Jan Schlichtmann, a plaintiff attorney, blamed the Bush administration for contributing to the environmental backsliding by squelching discussion of scientific facts about air quality.

“For the last eight years, there has been a war on science,” said Schlichtmann, best known as the lawyer who represented families in Woburn, Mass., nearly 30 years ago when they sued W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods for contaminating the city’s water supply and causing an unusually high number of cases of childhood leukemia. The legal
proceedings led to a book and movie entitled “A Civil Action.”

The Obama administration will take a different approach to the debate about the environment, Schlichtmann said. He forecast a cease-fire in disputes over science, which will build momentum to solve problems.

“That alone will have a huge impact,” he said. “The more discussion, the more honesty, the less need there is to fight. The fighting wastes a tremendous amount of time.”

William O’Brien, chief executive of Sabertec, a company that produces a mechanism to reduce tailpipe emissions, said that it takes 15 to 20 years for new technology to have full impact. Along the way, consumers need a nudge, like tax breaks, to adopt a device like his, which captures harmful particulates that emerge from a car.

“You have to incentivize people to take an action like this,” O’Brien said.

The best environmental answer in the long run is to eliminate pollution-producing cars, O’Brien said.

“We need a zero-emission vehicle,” he said. “We need to change entirely the paradigm of automobile transportation.”