January 27, 2009 at 12:02 pm

Daniel Howes: Commentary

Emission policy missteps on Big 3

That didn't take long.

Less than a week after his inauguration, President Obama signaled that any road to revival for Detroit's automakers runs through a town called "Tough Love" in the state of California. Instead of a set of uniform standards for greenhouse gas emissions nationwide, his Environmental Protection Agency will begin the process to allow Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's bureaucrats and those in 13 other states to set their own standards under the Clean Air Act.

"Our goal is not to further burden the struggling American auto industry," the president said. Yet that's pretty much exactly what the action, coupled with plans to formally establish stiffer federal fuel economy rules, actually does.

This, as General Motors Corp. cuts more shifts and jobs, as car and truck sales continue sideways, as gas prices languish under $2 a gallon, as more gas-electric hybrids are poised to be launched into a market increasingly cool to them, as the electric-car mania of the Detroit auto show morphs into a more sober appraisal of their technical limitations and market appeal.

Reminds me of the adage: What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. This sop to the environmental wing of the Democratic party and, especially, the California delegation, is an inevitable consequence of the election, the prevailing orthodoxy in Washington and a misplaced notion that government regulations -- not market forces -- are the best way to regulate product development and consumer behavior.

Except that they really aren't, as last summer's $4-a-gallon gas demonstrated. It wasn't stiffer Corporate Average Fuel Economy rules or the greenhouse gas emissions regs that reduced national fuel consumption and spiked demand for small, more fuel-efficient cars -- the twin goals of the environmentalists.

It was the price of fuel, a price that was, incidentally, paid by everyone who chose to drive. Not so for the logical outcomes of the policy cascade unleashed Monday by the president. The cost, as a map plotting of assembly plants and auto headquarters would attest, will be borne disproportionately by the people living and working outside the states doing the regulating.

Which proves, yet again, that environmental policy making is all about getting someone else -- preferably those in fly-over country -- to pay for some of your sins and absolve you of the rest.

Not only does Schwarzenegger, faced with a massive state budget deficit, want Obama's EPA to allow his state to regulate greenhouse gases. The governor this month demanded that job-creating infrastructure projects be exempt from reviews required by the California Environmental Quality Act and rules under the National Environmental Policy Act, according to Energy & Environment Daily.

In other words, protecting California's environment is vital unless it gets in the way of recharging the state's battered economy with recession-fighting projects funded by the Obama administration's expected federal stimulus plan. Our economy? That's our problem, apparently.

As far back as the spring of 2007, in a speech to the Detroit Economic Club, Obama clearly telegraphed his intention to bring recalcitrant automakers kicking and screaming into the 21st century. He said so on the campaign trail, in debates and in his inaugural address.

Monday, less than a week into his presidency, he proved it. And my guess is that there is more where that came from, as the automakers are just weeks away from proffering plans to Congress and the White House to demonstrate their viability -- an exercise they probably wish they would never have been forced to start.

Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at (313) 222-2106, dchowes@detnews.com">dchowes@detnews.com or detnews.com/howes.

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