Conspiracy of Polluters

How the Big Three automakers have spent decades dodging lawmakers' efforts to make them develop clean alternatives to the internal-combustion engine.

| Fri Jul. 28, 2000 2:00 AM EDT

Given the spectacular advances in clean automobile technology over the century, there is no good reason why there is still no alternative to gas-guzzling, polluting automobiles. That point is well made in Jack Doyle's new book, "Taken for a Ride: Detroit's Big Three and the Politics of Pollution" (Four Walls Eight Windows Press, 2000).

The history of the auto industry's war against cleaner-burning engines, alternative fuels, and mass transportation goes back more than 50 years.

In the late 1940s, General Motors and a number of oil, chemical, and tire companies were convicted for going around to the major cities and replacing clean, efficient inner-city electric trolley systems with polluting diesel buses.

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This was among the most egregious corporate crimes in history. More egregious was the penalty: General Motors and the other convicted companies were fined $5,000. The executives were fined $1 each.

In 1957, Paul Schenck, R-Ohio, introduced a bill that would have prohibited the sale of vehicles discharging hydrocarbons in levels found dangerous by the surgeon general.

"Here is a Republican from the Midwest introducing a bill that calls the surgeon general to play a public-health role," Doyle told us recently. "If this technology was found to be a threat to public health, then the surgeon general would be empowered to prohibit the sale of the internal combustion engine."

The bill never made it through Congress, at least not in that form. Still, it was a powerful statement at the time about the growing national concern over auto pollution. In 1959, President Eisenhower signed a modified Schenck Act. That law directed the surgeon general to study the relationship between auto pollution and public health.

Other attemps to change the Big Three's polluting ways were not even that successful.

In the late 1960s, federal prosecutors in Los Angeles opened a grand jury investigation into the automobile industry for conspiring to defeat clean automobile technology.

Rising out of the smog capital of the world, Justice Department attorneys wanted to indict the auto companies and their executives, for conspiring to ensure that the internal combustion engine would reign supreme over cleaner technology.

The auto industry knew that the case would be won in Washington, D.C., not Los Angeles, and hired Lloyd Cutler, who then was an aspiring corporate fix-it man.

With Cutler's help, the grand jurors were dismissed, replaced by a spineless civil consent decree encouraging auto companies to research and produce cleaner cars. That had little impact, as anyone can see, on pollution and global-warming problems.

Clean air advocates, including Los Angeles City Attorney Kenneth Hahn, protested, to no avail.

"The presidents of General Motors, Ford ,and Chrysler should be brought to trial right here in Los Angeles," Hahn wrote in 1968. "The big manufacturers all conspired. If one wouldn't put the devices on, the others wouldn't either. This case is the most important legal battle in the history of the air pollution fight."

The foreman of the grand jury, Martin Walsbren, was furious over the Justice Department's sell-out to Cutler's gang. He told the Los Angeles Times that there was much more to the case than the consent decree suggested, but there wasn't much he could say "unless I wish to risk going to jail."

Then California Congressman Phil Burton got hold of the original Justice Department criminal memo in the case. The memo shows an auto industry conspiring to defeat pollution-control equipment even while lying to public officials about how they were going all out to develop those technologies.

There also have been attempts to outlaw the internal combustion engine altogether -- again to no avail, showing once again how corporate criminals have the ability to define the laws under which they live.

Take the case of Nicholas Petris. Petris was a California state Senator. In 1969, Petris introduced legislation, SB 778, a bill that would prohibit the sale of all diesel- and gasoline-powered internal combustion engines in California by January 1, 1975.

The auto industry thought Petris' bill was a joke. They all laughed at it. But the laughter stopped in July 1969, when the California Senate approved Petris' bill by a vote of 26 to 5 and sent it to the California Assembly.

"People are demanding that we move rapidly to reverse this trend of polluting our air and water in the whole environment," said Petris upon passage of the bill.

The auto industry straightened up and got serious. Future President and then state Gov. Ronald Reagan threatened to veto the bill if it made it out of the Assembly. The industry put the screw to lawmakers, and the bill died in committee.

Doyle argues in his book that for 50 years the companies have had the business opportunity to produce a clean car and they've blown it.

"The automakers' own internal cost-accounting, recall record and warranty repairs will show that they squandered billions while trying to convince Congress that clean air and better fuel economy were too expensive," Doyle says.

Even Bill Ford, who has espoused an environmental vision for his family's auto company, was seen recently in Washington, D.C. lobbying against repeal of the loophole in fuel-economy standards that lets Ford make millions on his line of gas-guzzing sports utility vehicles, despite the company's efforts to seem "green."

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