Big Six : tobacco :: Big Diesel : marijuana

News broke a couple days ago about California Attorney General Bill Lockyer suing what he calls "the Big Six" - GM, FoMoCo, DaimlerChrysler, Toyota, Nissan North America and Honda North America - for "contribut[ing] significantly to global warming, harm[ing] the resources, infrastructure and environmental health of California, and cost[ing] the state millions of dollars to address current and future effects." Pundits jumped on the news immediately, calling it the next Big Tobacco lawsuit. But I think that Lockyer, if he's so inclined to believe his state's fascination with wheeled transport is doing it some harm, could have found a better target. First off, while the lawsuit appears similar to Big Tobacco on first glance - industry creates product, product harms people on a national scale, industry becomes wealthy, hey-we-should-sue-somebody mentality sets in - anybody who read anything more than headlines over the last decade will be able to point out the differences. The companies that make up Big Tobacco conspired to keep their knowingly harmful and knowingly addictive products in the mouths of the public for decades solely for the gain of profit. Meanwhile, the companies that make up "the Big Six" (btw, Lockyer kinda made that up himself - the motoring press has so far refused to admit the foreign automakers into any Big category and have really dropped the term other than in jest since Daimler-Benz and Chrysler merged in 2000) can hardly conspire on anything. Only the most paranoid conspiracy theorist would argue that the heads of those six companies get together in a secret cabal meeting room and chuckle sadistically over their plan to put particulate matter into the skies above California. That theory follows gnomic philosophy - Step 1: Pollute the Golden State; Step 2: (nothing); Step 3: Profit!!! Also, any automotive manufacturer in the United States has to pass pretty severe emissions regulations, and has had to do so since 1968. Granted, the emisssions regulations today are much more strict than the 1968 rules, but the point is that they have abided by every effort the government has made since then to clean up the gasoline-fired internal combustion engine. And California, through its California Air Resources Board, has imposed even tougher emissions regulations since about that same time. So Lockyer can't argue that all of this has taken place in a vacuum. We'll skip the argument about California's nearly petulant refusal to offer comprehensive public transportation (San Fran's trolleys don't count). We'll skip the argument about Big Oil artifically keeping the cost of fuel in America down, feeding our addiction to wheeled transport, while Europeans with their high fuel costs have learned to find alternative means of transportation. We'll skip the argument that market forces - not GM - killed the elctric car and will continue to do so until a viable EV with the range and power of an internal combustion vehicle appears. We'll skip the questioning of why smaller manufacturers - Hyundai, BMW, Mitsubishi, VW/Audi among them - didn't make the list. While "the Big Six" make for an easy target, I'll argue that another industry - let's call them "the Big Five" (if Lockyer can make shit up, then so can I) - has contributed more to greenhouse emissions and has spent many more years in unregulated bliss than our major automotive manufacturers. If any industry were to profit from collaborating with Big Oil, it would be the trucking industry - Big Diesel. Over the last few decades, this country has shifted almost entirely away from hauling its goods by rail and toward shipping them via truck. I'll surmise that it's a direct result of our insistence on having our stuff ASAP. Trains take too long because the tracks don't go everywhere; roads go everywhere that consumers do, so let's just ship it all via truck. I've driven across this country twice; I ply the roads of the Northeast on a regular basis. And I see the preponderance of trucks on the road, belching emissions and tearing up highways with seeming impunity. I see really five major diesel brands on the road nowaday: International (a brand of Navistar), Freightliner (owned by DaimlerChrysler), Volvo, Mack (owned by Volvo) and Isuzu (partnered mostly with GM). Why not go after them? According to the EPA, "reducing emissions from diesel engines is one of the most important air quality challenges facing the country." Granted, federal emissions regulations have just recently started to take diesels to task, with members of "the Big Six" scrambling to meet 2007 calendar year diesel deadlines (GM's completely revamping its diesels; DaimlerChrysler's all-new BlueTec diesel couldn't pass muster in five states). But where have diesel regs been since 1968? It wasn't until 1998 that diesel particulate matter was identified as a toxic air contaminant and carcinogen, and CARB all of a sudden decided to reduce diesel emissions in California 75 percent by 2010 and 85 percent by 2020. It wasn't until June 1, 2006, that refiners had to start production of ultra-low sulfur diesel engines. Remember middle school health class, when they showed you pictures of a normal healthy lung, then pictures of a tobacco smoker's lung, then pictures of a marijuana user's lung? The relative cleanliness of a gasoline engine versus a diesel engine is kinda like that. So Lockyer's insistence on going after "the Big Six" rather than Big Diesel is like going after Big Tobacco (ignore my deconstruction of the faulty analogy above for a second) when Big Marijuana is just sitting around (if, of course, marijuana were legal and thus spawned a legitimate industry). Is Lockyer afraid to piss of Big Diesel and risk more price hikes in consumer goods if such a lawsuit were successful? (Incidentally, have consumer goods dropped in price since last year's $3-plus gas "forced" transportation companies to hike their rates, thus "forcing" consumer good manufacturers to up their prices?) Is Lockyer afraid of pissing off unionized truck drivers? Or does he just not realize what real damage is going on beyond the sensational headlines he's created? I should probably state somewhere here that, even though I'm a car guy and car guys generally despise regulation of their cars, all internal combustion engines do pollute. Heck, any mode of transportation aside from walking or riding a horse ultimately pollutes, considering the manufacturing processes that go into creating anything from a bicycle to an automobile. I'd like to see fewer greenhouse gases like anyone, so why not start with the biggest polluters?

  1. Interesting point about the trucking industry. I remember reading something years ago about the huge amount of damage done to roads and bridges by semi trucks and the taxes and fees they pay versus the timy amounts damage done by passenger vehicles and the taxes we pay. It worked out to be a huge subsidy for shipping by truck. If I can find the reference I’ll post about it later.

    September 23rd, 2006 at 3:20 pm
  2. You gotta love the Google ads on this page. They’re completely inappropriate. There’s one for Roadmaster truck driving school, one for a quiet diesel truck, one for Mercedes diesel parts and two for diesel ring tones(I’m not even curious about what they sound like or the kind of person who would use them). Someone needs to start looking a little deeper than just a few key words.

    September 25th, 2007 at 5:37 pm

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