The news that Fiat-Chrysler is the latest auto-maker caught having massively—and probably illegally—exceeded allowable emission levels for its diesels cars raises a major question: Will this crisis shake Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne's long standing bet against history, in particular against the replacement of the internal combustion engine by the electric drive train?
A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope spent the last 18 years of his career at the Sierra Club as CEO and chairman.
It's time to modernize George Orwell's concept of the memory hole laid out in his (once again best-selling novel), 1984. The "memory hole" was where "the party" discarded inconvenient bits of history, replacing them with what are now known as "alternative facts." The logic, as Orwell explained it, was "Who controls the past, controls the future."
It's a big week for me. Monday was the official publication date of Climate of Hope, my new book co-authored with former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg.
Perhaps the Senate, in its hearing on Scott Pruitt's nomination to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), should have questioned Pruitt as the chief pediatrician for America's children. As head of the EPA Pruitt gets to decide what is safe for our kids—in the air they breathe, the water they drink, the food they eat and the communities they play. Senators didn't ask—but they are finding out.
One of the biggest impacts of President Trump's election is not the direct damage he may do—but the cultural shift he has unleashed among American business leaders. Assaults on decency and health that would have been unthinkable a few months ago are now the expected response by corporate executives pressured by short-term market pressures and right-wing political allies.
The oil industry and its "deep state" allies in the Trump administration have lured U.S. auto companies into a potentially fatal political trap, chumming Detroit by tapping into the deeply embedded penchant of the Big Three for chasing short-term market trends at the expense of long term value.
Excited by the arrival of a Big Oil ally, Scott Pruitt, to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the auto industry asked the Trump administration to undo the recent Obama Administration rule locking long term, reliable standards for emissions and fuel economy. The industry argued that the standards, which it agreed to back in 2009 as part of the auto bail-out, were now too onerous because consumers were shifting to buy SUV's again with lower oil prices. The argument is utterly bogus. The 2009 rules set separate, if ambitious, standards for each size class of vehicle, so while more SUV sales do drive up average emissions and oil consumption, they do not require the companies to make a single vehicle to a higher standard than they agreed to.
What's really at stake here is the pace of vehicle electrification. Meeting the 2009 standards for each vehicle class was always dependent on a significant portion of those vehicles being zero-emission electric drive. That's an existential threat to the oil industry—and in many ways to Detroit's dealers, who make most of their money repairing the drive trains of internal combustion cars. Electric drive vehicles (EV) have a fraction of the maintenance costs of gas or diesel.
But a rapid deployment of electric drive cars is vital to the long term global viability of automobile manufacturers. Whatever happens in the U.S., global auto markets are going electric and the Big Three need a major U.S. EV market to compete in the 21st century.
A few days before the Trump administration announced that—surprise, surprise—it was giving the auto industry everything it had asked for and more, not only waiving the post 2022 economy standards but also seeking to strip California of its historic right to set its own vehicle emissions rules, I attended a high level strategy session in New Delhi devoted to the future of India's auto fleet. If Detroit had been listening it might have realized the folly of resuming its servile junior partner status with oil.
The message could not have been clearer. Minister after Minister—roads, industry, rail, urban development—proclaimed India's urgent need for "transportation without oil." The government of India's top planners made clear that they were uniformly committed to an all electric vehicle economy by 2030, a step which would dry up the oil industry's biggest remaining growth target. It would also shut off the world's fastest growing automotive market to U.S. manufacturers if they continue to rely on internal combustion engines.
India's domestic ride-hailing service, Ola, announced a partnership with Indian auto maker Mahindra to test electric taxis. The government indicated it would suspend the permit process for electric vehicles, as the City of Beijing has already done, giving electric car ownership a big boost. Toyota boasted that 46 percent of the Camry's sold in India are already hybrids or electrics. The electric drive train has already left the station. With China already far down the electric vehicle pathway, Europe being forced onto it by air pollution problems and India trying to leap-frog both, an auto industry that continues to rely on 20th century technology will rapidly become a 20th century relic.
Why would U.S. auto companies, like General Motors with its big—and bold—bet on the ground-breaking electric Bolt, give up the level playing field and predictability which the 2022 emission and economy rules had given them in 2009? Just as Trump was signaling that he will ease the requirements, Rob Threlkeld, global manager of renewable energy for General Motors, said the automaker is pushing to source all of its power from clean sources by 2050 because that's what consumers want. Why would manufacturers choose a strategic pathway so clearly at odds with where world auto markets are going?
Why would they pick such a big fight with their biggest domestic market. California, joined as it is by a bevy of other states seeking cleaner and cheaper transportation options? Well, dealership pressure is one reason. Dealers hate EV's, because they don't break down and don't fatten their service departments. Another is that the auto industry's lobbying apparatus thrives on the message, "the government is out to hurt you. Fight back!" (After all, if Government Affairs departments concede the reality that government regulations have been, net, good for the industry, keeping it competitive with the German and Japanese manufacturers, what's the argument for fat lobbying budgets?)
From 2004 to 2008, as oil prices soared, Detroit clung to its SUV dependent business model, pronouncing that gasoline prices could never reach the $2.50 mark at which customers starting seeking fuel economy. When that marker was crossed in 2006, Chrysler and GM headed for bankruptcy, Ford for massive debt and value loss and the U.S. industry almost went away except for the Obama administration rescue.
Now, just as happened in that era, the auto industry is once again barreling towards long-term bankruptcy for short-term relaxation of standards. What can rescue Detroit from its own death wish?
Primarily California and its allied states, (Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont), which have adopted their own version of the 2022 fuel efficiency rules and an electric vehicle mandate to go with it. Representing 30 percent of the U.S. auto market, these states alone can drive Detroit to remain competitive in the electric drive segment. While the Trump administration appears ready to deny California the waiver which enables it to maintain its own rules, there will be a major legal battle in the courts over whether the federal government can revoke a waiver once it has been issued. And even if, in the short turn, the Trump administration prevails, California and its allies can make clear that once political attitudes in Washington change, as they always do, that the next round of economy and emissions standards will be much, much tougher than those Detroit is seeking to weaken today. The 2022 rules were very much a compromise—and with foreign manufacturers racing to electrify, California holds a much stronger long term hand than Detroit.
So what the auto companies and auto workers and auto communities, all ought to be praying for is that the Trump administration's ploy to reinforce Detroit's dependence on oil fails—because the courts uphold state's rights and California's ability to insist that the auto industry remain globally competitive.
After a week in India, despite crowding, intensity and poverty, there is an undeniable lightness from plunging into a country firmly fixed on its future, not its past, moving forward however jerkily and energized.
Here's the harvest of Thursday's headlines: the Government of India is doubling the scale of the country's solar parks, adding 20 gigawatts, more than total U.S. solar capacity; Great Britain's development finance institution, CDC, announced a major new solar initiative targeted at India's undeserved eastern states; India's largest network of vocational institutes, run by the Catholic church, pledged to shift to renewable energy; Jharkand, India's West Virginia and biggest coal producer, plans to build more solar capacity than its peak internal demand for power; the Indian Supreme Court stepped up its crack-down on water pollution from industrial facilities; analysts projected aggressive bidding Thursday for India's first reverse auction for wind power, with prices expected to set new records; and finally the government announced that starting next year it would prepare a special budget annex assessing the steps it is taking to deal with climate change.
That's one day.
Meanwhile, traffic remains mind numbingly congested; but the future is being sketched out. Tide-hailing companies like Ola and Uber have grown so fast that they are beginning to drive up the wage scales for private chauffeurs. More and more Indians are leaving their personal cars at home as they brave grid-lock, prompting the government to schedule a high level strategy session Monday and Tuesday on whether India can move directly to a world of electric, shared passenger vehicles and skip the phase of mass personal ownership of cars altogether.
Volkswagen, as it plans its global recovery from the diesel cheating scandal, picked India's Tata Motors as its preferred strategic partner.
Air pollution is taking a devastating toll; but it has also emerged as a major issue as India's political parties contest a set of critical state elections across India's heavily polluted Gangetic plain.
India has decisively—if not irrevocably—bet its future on clean energy and low carbon innovation. Only if this disruptive pathway fails the country's aspirations to lift its masses out of poverty is India likely to revert to a fossil fuel reliant development model. This looks like the biggest opportunity clean energy has ever had.
Both the government and India's most prestigious (and caution) energy think tank, TERI, have declared that except for plants already in the pipeline, India will need no more coal power until after 2025, because planned renewable electricity will more than meet demand. The draft National Electricity Plan calls for installing renewable power capacity equal to 85 percent of peak demand, with no new coal at all.
Serious conversations are underway about how to jump start the needed investments in transmission. The grid must carry this enormous increase in renewable power to the load centers where it is needed which, as in most countries, are often distant from the prime wind and solar regions.
India is being smart. The record setting bids at the last solar auction (less than $0.05/kwh) were powered by some very smart auction design; setting up solar farms relieved developers of the risk and delays associated with obtaining land, the risk of transmission stranding was addressed by pledging to pay for electrons generated even if the grid to deliver them to customers had not yet been completed and hedging mechanisms allowed the projects access to low cost foreign borrowing. (Neighboring countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, Vietnam and Bangladesh pay far more, usually twice as much, for wind and solar, even when they have access to cheaper capital, because they have not gotten the policy basics right).
India's low carbon strategies are moving beyond the power sector. A goal of a 100 percent electrified vehicle fleet by 2030 is moving into the implementation phase. A senior academic from IIT Madras, Ashok Jhunjhunwala, has been given the lead oversight role and sees the problem as primarily one of industrial policy; if India can obtain and master the key electric drive vehicle technologies—solar cells, batteries and highly efficient vehicle cooling technology—electric drive vehicle's potential to displace imported and polluting oil will then create the necessary short-term policy support to end the era of oil powered combustion engines in India.
The Rail Ministry, led by Suresh Prabhu, a strong clean energy advocate, has been aggressively pursuing new strategies to enable India to shift a major share of its good traffic off of roads and trucks and onto climate friendly rail.
And, as mentioned above, India is placing competition for prowess in manufacturing low carbon equipment and infrastructure at the center of its economic development strategy.
India has always been better at thoughtful aspirations than at implementation; each one of these goals and steps faces multiple challenges. High domestic interest rates and foreign investor wariness of the security of long term loans to India, are probably the biggest threat—clean energy provides free fuel, but also demands more up front capital investment. Indian solar developers pay 50 percent more for the capital they use than those in the Persian Gulf. But those conversations are a lot more creative and energizing than the rehash of tired 1970's "environment vs. the economy" narrative that President Trump and the Republican Congress seem determined to rescue from the ash heap of history.
The utterly avoidable, terrifying and still potentially catastrophic failures of the spillways of North America's highest dam—California's 170 foot, earth-filled Oroville—could, with the right national leadership, awaken America to the urgency of investing in our physical safety and future—our infrastructure.