‘Pavley’s Ploy’ may carjack motorist choice

Published September 1, 2002

How bad is the California auto emissions bill? … Let me count the ways.

California’s war on sport utility vehicles shifted into high gear with the backroom passage of a bill that commandeers consumer choice in automobiles under the largely fraudulent pretense of combating global warming. This is political carjacking at its worst.

Unable to pass federal fuel-economy regulations to stop people from driving the larger, more comfortable cars they want, environmentalists took their efforts to Sacramento.

A bill by Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) was the car haters’ vehicle of choice, because anything affecting the huge California car market is likely to affect the rest of the country. The measure makes California the first state to regulate tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases.

Unable to pass the bill through the normal legislative process, Pavley had its language inserted into a nonenvironmental, technical bill sitting on the Senate floor and got it voted out of the Senate on a Saturday. Call it “Pavley’s Ploy,” in case they change its name again to further confuse the public. The bill was signed by Gov. Gray Davis on July 22.

Pavley’s Ploy is supposed to reduce California’s emission of gases that some computer models hold responsible for global warming. But the numbers suggest Pavley’s Ploy isn’t about preventing global warming. It’s about preventing you from buying that next truck or SUV, or driving as much as you want the one you already own.

According to government emissions data, California motorists produce less than one-quarter of 1 percent of the world’s emissions of the gases theoretically linked to global warming. According to government computer models, about 80 percent of observed or predicted global warming is because of greenhouse gases, most of the rest being caused by changes in land use for farming, forestry, and so on. Whatever its other effects, when it comes to preventing global warming, this bill will provide virtually no benefit to future generations.

Auto emissions of carbon dioxide (the main greenhouse gas cars produce) can be reduced in one of two ways: by reducing the amount of fuel those cars collectively burn, or by changing to a fuel that emits less carbon dioxide per unit of energy. Those goals can be reached only by mandating technology that would lighten and shrink cars, levying fuel taxes to reduce driving, adding per-mile driving fees to keep motorists off the road, or mandating “alternative fuel” technology such as natural gas and electric-powered cars.

All those approaches have known failings, expose people to greater risk and deprive them of consumer choice, suck resources out of the economy, and sink those resources into bureaucratic paper-shuffling.

While climate change is still largely theoretical, the serious harm done by regulatory approaches like these is a well-established fact. Not to put too fine a point on it, but forcing people into smaller cars will kill some of them. The National Academy of Sciences has acknowledged that lighter and smaller cars are inherently more dangerous. And no, that’s not simply in collisions with SUVs. That’s also true in accidents when some lightweight cars hit a guardrail.

Pavley’s Ploy will also slow down the fight against the better-understood pollutants, such as ozone and particulate matter, because anything that raises the price of new cars reduces the single biggest positive force in easing air pollution: buying a new, less-polluting car.

Worse still, taking money out of people’s pockets for higher fuel and automobile costs will mean less for other needs, such as education and health care.

The degradation of transparency in California’s legislature is only the first harm Pavley’s Ploy would foist on the public. Californians will be poorer and less safe for it.

Kenneth Green is chief scientist at the Los Angeles, California-based Reason Foundation.