EPA to Limit Carbon Dioxide, but to What End?

Carbon mania has been a way of life in Europe for years now. Automakers are critiqued for their vehicles’ “carbon footprint,” and some auto reviewers now cry out for smaller engines and slower vehicles. Now it seems that the same mania -- and we use that term advisedly -- is about to hit the United States. No, American consumers aren’t seeking a limit on carbon dioxide emissions. (If they were, sales of hybrid vehicles wouldn’t be so horribly sluggish.) But now, with the change in administrations, the federal government seems bent on making big changes, including creating a governmental program to address carbon dioxide. Frankly, this is very bad news for every global car maker that competes in North America, and it might be the equivalent of arsenic poisoning for the American-based manufacturers. 

In the same week that the president’s auto industry task force was drawing conclusions on how to save General Motors and Chrysler from oblivion, the Environmental Protection Agency said that it wants carbon dioxide, a natural byproduct of fuel combustion, to be declared a public health danger. Given the president’s campaign rhetoric, this move is not unexpected, but in light of the domestic automakers’ current difficulties, it could be characterized as ill-timed, and by some, woefully misguided. Its purported purpose is to put the brakes on global warming, but even its proponents might admit that it will have no real effect in that area if carbon emissions from other countries -- like China and India, for example -- continue to climb. And that’s assuming carbon dioxide is the culprit in the first place. The European experience with carbon footprints can be likened to a dog chasing its tail and never catching it -- and then becoming unsure if he ever wants to.

Two years ago the U.S. Supreme Court rendered a decision allowing EPA to regulate CO2 and other so-called “greenhouse gases.” Though the science behind the theory that carbon dioxide and other gases contribute to global climate change is controversial, top EPA officials are steadfast in their belief that CO2 must be regulated. Climatologists of all stripes acknowledge that over the Earth’s history, its climate has changed repeatedly without the influence of the motorcar or factory chimneys. Volcanic eruptions, asteroid strikes and variations in the sun’s intensity have been theorized to be the root causes, but the current thinking (fad?) asserts that “man,” epitomized by his factories and automobiles, is the problem.

The EPA’s effort to seek regulation of CO2 is the latest in a continuing saga surrounding carbon dioxide emissions that began some 10 years ago when the state of California, spooked by global warming theory, petitioned EPA to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act. EPA declined to do so, because carbon dioxide was not deemed to be a pollutant, but this failed to satisfy the anti-car, anti-industry zealots, so Massachusetts, California and about a dozen other states sued the organization. The Supreme Court said EPA should regulate carbon dioxide emissions or come up with a good excuse for deciding not to.

EPA’s policy change has to be regarded as another blow to the already beleaguered auto manufacturers who have seen the vital North American market tank in recent months. Car makers are no fans of carbon dioxide limits, because they don’t believe the cause-effect relationship between tailpipe carbon dioxide and climate change has been proven. Since carbon dioxide limits have the potential to cost them -- and cost consumers, too -- billions of dollars, they have suggested that a better understanding of the ramifications of carbon dioxide limits be gained before they are implemented.

While all auto manufacturers are sure to suffer under carbon dioxide regulation, ailing companies General Motors and Chrysler, which have already reached into the public trough, are most vulnerable. What little hope GM and Chrysler have seen from 2009 sales results has come from larger vehicles, not fuel sippers that are indicated by carbon dioxide limitations. Even relatively loose regulation of carbon dioxide levels would force manufacturers to promote smaller, more fuel-efficient cars and trucks, and that plays right into the import manufacturers’ sweet spot. So while one part of the federal government is out to save the U.S. car industry, another is set to trip it up. Does anyone see the Mad Hatter’s hand in all of this?