Chicago Green Jobs

My Least Green Job Ever
March 31, 2009, 7:59 pm
Filed under: Job Training and Skills
Roger Smith (CC BY/NC/SA)

Image by Roger Smith (CC BY/NC/SA)

“Hey Feds! Get your hands off my truck! No New Energy Regs!”

I used to work for a company that handed out bumper stickers featuring that splendid little slogan at Nascar rallies. We had been hired by General Motors to create a “grassroots” campaign to influence public opinion against CAFE, a set of fuel economy regulations under consideration by Congress.

The Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards are designed to ensure that auto manufacturers build a minimum level of fuel efficient technology into the fleet. The idea is that all the vehicles in a manufacturer’s fleet should meet an average miles per gallon target. In other words, companies can still manufacture a gas-guzzler as long as they balance it out with a more fuel efficient option. CAFE standards were first created in 1975, and they aren’t going anywhere.

So yes, my least green job ever was helping GM delay the inevitable and continue building gas guzzlers! It was a dark time.

In light of GM’s spectacular collapse, I thought I’d look into just how much money GM has spent lobbying against CAFE standards. I was working on this in 2001-2002, and over those years GM spent a grand total of just over $20 million on lobbying, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

There are two caveats to that number. The first is that GM lobbyists were doubtless working on other issues in addition to CAFE. The second is that my company was actually a public relations firm, so the money they spent with us (and who knows how many other firms doing public opinion work) is not included in that figure.

So GM fought against CAFE in 2001-2002, but surely they saw the way the wind was blowing in 2007. Right? Nope! In 2007, GM re-launched it’s anti-CAFE reg campaign, and their lobbying spending jumped to nearly $19 million for 2007.

This is the moment when I could launch into a righteous rant about how if GM had just invested that lobbying money into building more fuel efficient cars then maybe they wouldn’t be on the brink of bankruptcy. But let’s look at the numbers instead. GM spent just over $100 million on lobbying between 2001 and 2008.  GE invested $1.4 billion in R&D through it’s Ecomagination initiative in 2008 alone. $100 million just doesn’t buy the breakthrough technology that could save a company.  So even though it would make a much prettier morality tale to blame GM’s anti-CAFE efforts for it’s downfall, I just can’t in good conscience do it (for an excellent analysis of GM’s structural problems, check Nate Silver’s piece here).

Nevertheless,  GM invested an awful lot of time and money into fighting inevitable regulation instead of figuring out how to innovate new products and processes. Looking backwards is just not a winning stance for business success – and neither is building Hummers in a carbon-constrained world.


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[…] Take the campaign I worked on for GM. Our job was to convince voters to call up their members of Congress to register their opposition to legislation that would require car manufacturers to build cars with better gas mileage. Our campaign was part of the winning team: when new CAFE legislation was signed in December of 2001 the standard held steady at 27.5 mpg, which was the level set in 1986. […]

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