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California Focus: On smog standards, GM a classic bandwagon jumper

Three years ago, General Motors was among the first to jump aboard when then-President Donald Trump and his administration tried to remove California’s authority to regulate its own smog standards, a right supposedly guaranteed in the federal Clean Air Act of 1970.

No one questioned whether this state would or should have that right in perpetuity back when Republican President Richard Nixon, a Californian very familiar with polluted air, signed that law. It was a matter of course.

California’s clean air advances quickly became so accepted that 16 other states eventually agreed to adopt whatever standards this state set, but a couple of years later just in case of complications.

Then came Trump claiming that his executive orders could override the authority Congress and a previous president gave California. He sought a single, far more lax, national automotive smog standard. If he’d been reelected, he might well have succeeded.

Only a lawsuit filed by former state Attorney General Xavier Becerra soon after Trump issued his order held up that edict, one of many designed to penalize California for providing the popular vote margin by which Hillary Clinton defeated Trump in 2016, even though Trump won in the arcane and archaic Electoral College.

But Trump again lost the popular vote last fall, with California providing most of the margin of defeat.

This time, he also lost in the Electoral College despite his repeated, false claims of widespread fraud.

GM again acted fast. The giant automaker almost immediately after the vote dropped its role in helping Trump try to deprive California of its key clean air authority. Fellow Trump-supporting automakers like Toyota and Fiat Chrysler followed months later.

GM’s move was clearly taken because new President Joseph Biden made it plain throughout his campaign that he would reverse most if not all Trump measures to loosen environmental regulations.

GM chief executive Mary Barra did not at any point relate her company’s move to any flaws in what Trump sought to do. Her statement left no doubt this was purely bandwagon jumping, GM getting aboard with a new president as soon as possible.

She said she pulled GM from its role as a Trump supporter because she agrees with Biden’s plan to make electric car use far more widespread.

“We believe the ambitious electrification goals of (Biden), California and General Motors are aligned to address climate change by drastically reducing automobile emissions,” she said.

It would have been difficult to be more blatant. For GM was aligned the last three years against California’s longstanding aim to increase EV use, the very plan Barra now endorses.

So this is corporate opportunism at its peak.

GM was long joined by Toyota in standing against California consumers, who strongly back the state’s environmental goals, according to every poll on the subject. Both glossed over their stances for years in consumer advertising.

Meanwhile, other large automakers like Ford, Volkswagen, Honda, BMW and Volvo joined Becerra’s lawsuit to prevent Trump’s anti-environmental move, which he justified with unsubstantiated claims that stricter smog standards lead to job losses.

It is no surprise that GM and Toyota left the Trump train at the first indication it was the losing side, both in this effort and in combating election results.

Both companies have long histories of opposing every advance California has ever made in smog controls. From the earliest smog control devices of the 1960s to catalytic converters to fleet standards that forced companies to build electric cars, GM and Toyota have always been recalcitrant.

They are among the foremost companies in repeatedly claiming standards set by California’s smog-fighting agency, the Air Resources Board, could not physically be met — and then somehow managing to do it after the standards were adopted.

Why expect these companies to change their behavior now? Rather, it was to be expected they would change colors like chameleons at the first indication it was the politically opportune thing to do.

Which means environmentally minded Californians now know which companies stood for cleaner air when times were tough and which did not, just in case they want to reward such efforts with a car purchase.

Email Thomas Elias at [email protected].

   

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