Mary Barra Nominated For Janus Award After GM Reverses Course On California Emission Standards

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There is good news today. After years of sucking up to the Trump administration and supporting its push to strip California of its authority to set its own exhaust emissions standards, General Motors has sensed a shift in the political winds. In a letter dated November 23, Mary Barra, CEO of GM, announced the company would no longer oppose California’s ability to impose more stringent emissions standards for cars sold within its borders, a program that is followed by 13 other jurisdictions, and would withdraw from the federal lawsuit that seeks to end California’s special status.

General Motors electric Hummer
Courtesy of General Motors

The letter was addressed to the heads of the Conservation Law Foundation, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, and the Union of Scientists, among others. In it, Barra said:

On behalf of General Motors, I am writing today to provide you with an update on our commitment to an all-electric, zero emission future and our hope that we can come together to make that vision a reality. President-elect Biden recently said, “I believe that we can own the 21st century car market again by moving to electric vehicles. We at General Motors couldn’t agree more. We are inspired by the President-elect’s Build Back Better plan which outlines a clear intention to expand vehicle electrification in the United States, create one million jobs, install 550,000 charging stations, and position American auto workers and manufacturers to win the race for electrification.

We believe the ambitious electrification goals of the President-elect, California, and General Motors are aligned to address climate change by drastically reducing automobile emissions. We are confident that the Biden Administration, California, and the U.S. auto industry, which supports 10.3 million jobs, can collaboratively find the pathway that will deliver an all-electric future. To better foster the necessary dialogue, we are immediately withdrawing from the preemption litigation and inviting other automakers to join us.

Joe Biden, the next president of the United States, had a meeting with Barra a week ago and issued the following statement after Barra’s letter was made public. “G.M.’s choice to work with the Biden-Harris administration and California to advance these goals demonstrates a promising path forward for how industry, labor, government, and environmental organizations can come together to tackle big problems and make vital progress on behalf of the American people. I applaud the steps that Mary Barra announced in her letter to environmental leaders today.”

The Fight

When the despicable Andrew Wheeler, fake administrator of the EPA, decided to end California’s authority under the Clean Air Act to enforce its own, stricter exhaust emission standards, the US auto industry broke into two camps. Ford, Honda, BMW, Volkswagen, and Volvo did the courageous thing and supported California. GM, FCA, and Toyota did the cowardly thing and backed the administration.

What scares the bejezus out of the car companies is the need to meet two different standards — one for California and the states who follow its lead and another for the rest of the country. Meeting different standards costs money, which sucks up profits. Heaven forfend GM and the others lose a nickel a car because of some silly regulations.

In the end, the Ford/Honda group agreed to a middle road proposal that will result in the lower emissions California wants but over a slightly longer period of time. The New York Times suggests the change in direction signaled by Barra’s letter is an indication that compromise agreement will likely become the default regulatory standard for the entire country, which should please all the automakers. By reversing course so abruptly, Barra is hereby nominated for this year’s Janus award, named in honor of the Roman god known for having two faces.

The Takeaway

The decision by Barra and the suits in the C Suite at GM headquarters is welcome news, but it throws the company’s utter hypocrisy into stark relief. Here is a major corporation that went out of its way to support the insane policies of the EPA over the past 4 years during which it shoved scientists aside, kowtowed shamelessly to the fossil fuel industry, and took a wrecking ball to myriad environmental regulations. When California and several states sued to preserve California’s power to require stricter emissions standards, GM saddled up its team of high powered lawyers to support the administration in court.

When I wrote an article last week about GM adding $7 billion to its electric vehicle development plans, many CleanTechnica readers denounced me for being too gentle on Barra and her gang. They called the company’s plans mere corporate-speak drivel. Nonetheless, GM’s total commitment to EVs now stands at $27 billion, which is not pocket change.

Be that as it may, it is easy to hoist the spinnaker when the wind is at your back. The hard work is sailing upwind. Leadership is about taking the high road, not the path of least resistance. Sadly, Mary Barra has squandered four precious years in the fight to preserve the Earth as a place where humanity can survive. We only had 12 years to turn things around according to many leading climate scientist and now we are down to 8. Barra fiddled while the Earth burned and enabled Tyrannosaurus Trump when she should have displayed real leadership. Sadly, Barra has been weighed in the balance and found wanting.

What is especially galling is that some of the earliest science showing a link between vehicle emissions and climate change was done by Ruth Reck, a GM employee. Her work was ignored and she was ultimately shoved aside when it put corporate profits at risk — a characteristic of GM management for more than 50 years.

In the words of Elie Wiesel, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice but we must never fail to protest.” Barra had the power to prevent injustice and chose to do nothing. Here’s a recent thought from Joe Biden she should take to heart. “I believe at our best America is a beacon for the globe. And we lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.” Shame on you, Mary Barra. You are not a leader, you are a follower, someone who bends whichever way the wind is blowing. America deserves better from its corporate leaders.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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