Forum Celebrates African American Leadership in Electric Auto Industry

Forum Celebrates African American Leadership in Electric Auto Industry

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Image: Danielle Deane (left), director of the energy and environmental program at the Joint Center policy institute, Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, and Carolyn Green, managing partner of EnerGreen Capital Management.

LOS ANGELES -- In a precedent-setting lawsuit in November 2007, California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown, Jr. sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to force it to allow enforcement of a state law requiring a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles.

“Despite the mounting dangers of global warming, the EPA has delayed and ignored California’s right to impose stricter environmental standards,” Brown said at a news conference on the suit. “We have waited two years and the Supreme Court has ruled in our favor. What is the EPA waiting for?”

Clean Car Chronicles: A Tailpipe Tale

July 2002 California Gov. Gray Davis signs into law a bill that directs the state’s Air Resources Board (ARB) to establish feasible standards for the reduction of greenhouse gases from passenger vehicles in the state.

December 2004 A coalition of major automotive companies responds by filing a lawsuit to stop the state from implementing its “Clean Cars” program.

September 2006 California Governor Schwarzenegger in October asks the EPA to allow the state to enforce the standards.

April 2007 The U. S. Supreme Court rules 5-4 that CO2 is a pollutant and that states can regulate its emissions, bolstering California’s Clean Cars Law.

November 2007 In a precedent setting lawsuit, Schwarzenegger and Attorney General Edmund G. Brown, Jr. sue the EPA, to force action on the state’s request to be allowed to enforce its emissions standards.

December 2007 The EPA denies California’s emission enforcement request.

January 2009 President Obama instructs the EPA to reconsider California’s request for authority to implement its emissions standards.

May 2009 President Obama announces an agreement between automakers, states and the federal government on tough new nationwide greenhouse gas and mileage standards for new vehicles.

June 2009 The EPA issues a waiver that allows California to enforce its emissions standards. Under the state law, vehicle emissions are to be cut by 30 percent by 2016.

April 2010 U.S. EPA and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration unveil historic new federal rules that set the first national emissions and fuel economy standards for new cars and light trucks and improve fuel economy.

August 2012 The Obama Administration announces emissions standards that will reduce global warming pollution and increase fuel economy to the equivalent of 54.5 mpg for cars and light-duty trucks by 2025, nearly twice as much as today’s average.

2013 The EPA holds a series of hearings on emissions standards to formulate regulations that would take effect in 2017.

It is clear that the agency was waiting for new leadership because when the newly elected President Obama appointed Lisa Jackson to take control of environmental policy in January 2009, the EPA immediately launched a process that would grant California – and the 13 other states that supported the lawsuit – the right to implement the new emissions standards. The EPA issued an order allowing the emissions enforcement in June 2009.

Last week, six years after the filing of the suit, African-American leadership on that issue – the work of Obama, EPA chief Lisa Jackson and David Strickland, head of National Highway Traffic Administration – was celebrated at “Clean Cars, Jobs and Healthy Communities,” a forum at the California African American Museum.

Jackson stepped down from the EPA in February after four years of running the agency. However, Strickland was among the featured speakers at the forum, which focused on ways to further advance the development of low-emission and zero-emission vehicles to improve the health and economic well-being of urban communities. The November 21 event was organized by the California Electric Transportation Coalition and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank for analysis of policy issues of concern to people of color.

Strickland and Jackson took part in negotiations with automotive companies that resulted in a 2012 agreement on the next phase of gas pollution reduction nationwide, standards that will require manufacturers to double the fuel efficiency of vehicles by 2025.

General Motors was one of the automotive companies that participated in that negotiated agreement. Speaking on behalf of General Motors (GM), Mike Robinson, the company’s vice president of sustainability and government regulatory affairs, linked GM’s launch of the new Cadillac ELR – the luxury line’s first plug-in electric vehicle – to the effort to reduce pollution. He praised Strickland for his role in the “greatest greenhouse gas reduction” measure.

In his comments, Strickland said the new emissions standards took “years of discussions, strife and angst.” He said increased production of low-emission and no-emission vehicles could change consumer buying habits.

“My father once owned a 1975 Cadillac El Dorado,” said Strickland, referring to the family car of his youth. “It was as big as this room and not very fuel efficient.”

Strickland said that he owns a hybrid vehicle that operates on gas and electricity and cited the financial benefits of owning hybrids and electric vehicles.

“When my father saw that my hybrid got 50 percent more mileage than his car, he bought one,” said Strickland.

However, California Assemblymember Steven Bradford, another forum speaker, said African-American interest in hybrids and electric vehicles has been limited because most charging stations are in high-income communities that are predominantly white.

“If you don’t have charging stations in poorer communities, they’re not going to buy them,” he said.

The state of California will be expanding the production of charging stations and will be identifying communities where more are needed, said forum participant Janea Scott, a member of the California Energy Commission.

The need for more charging stations in African-American communities is great because particulate pollution in those neighborhoods is responsible for large-scale asthma problems, said Danielle Deane, director of the energy and environmental program at the Joint Center policy institute. Deane, who moderated a forum panel, said blacks are “two to three times more likely to die” from asthma compared to other Americans.

Asthma attacks in African-American communities in Atlanta dropped dramatically when the city temporarily barred the use of automotive vehicles in parts of the city to reduce traffic congestion when it hosted the 1996 Olympics, said Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. He told the gathering that asthma attacks spiked up again when the vehicle restrictions were removed.

Dr. Benjamin challenged those who say tougher emissions regulations will hurt the automotive industry and lead to a loss of jobs. In flyers distributed at the forum, the California Electric Transportation Coalition, a nonprofit organization, cited a university study that said increased production of electric vehicles could be a catalyst for economic growth.

“Jobs are a red herring,” Dr. Benjamin said. “You can’t work if you’re dead and you can’t work if you’re sick.”