The automobile companies are criminal outlaws.
That's one conclusion you can easily come to after reading Jack Doyle's
new book -- Taken for a Ride: Detroit's Big Three and the Politics of
Pollution (Four Walls Eight Windows Press, 2000).
Given the spectacular advances in clean automobile technology over the
century, there is just no reason -- other than pure criminality -- why
we have been forced to live and die today with gas-guzzling, polluting
In the late 1960s, federal prosecutors in Los Angeles had the same take
and 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 air devices -- and that thousands of Americans
would be poisoned as a result.
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 that had little impact -- as you can
clearly see -- on our pollution and global warming woes.
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 quite angry 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 a 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.
This wasn't the industry's first run-in with criminal prosecutors. 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.
This was perhaps the most egregious corporate crime in history.
General Motors and the other convicted companies were fined $5,000. The
executives were fined $1 each.
There have been attempts to outlaw the internal combustion engine -- 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 26-5 and sent it to the California
"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. With future
President and then California Governor Ronald Reagan threatening a veto,
the industry laid down the law, and the bill died in the California
Even before Nick Petris launched his attempt to ban the internal
combustion engine, there was one Congressional attempt that came at the
issue by way of public health.
In 1957, Paul Schenck, R-Ohio, introduced a bill that would prohibit
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 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.
California law now requires that 10 percent of a car company's fleet be
zero emission vehicles by 2003. The inside betting is that, instead of
meeting the challenge, the auto industry will work its will in Sacramento
and defeat that 2003 standard.
There are some, like Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, who
believe that the automobile industry can be persuaded to mass produce a
hyper car that can make it across our country on one tank of gas. Lovins
was in Washington, D.C. recently, the guest of the U.S. Chamber of
Commerce, invited to make his pitch.
But in his book, Doyle argues 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.
Perhaps Lovins can persuade the stick in the mud auto executives to
change their ways. But 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 gas guzzling sports utility vehicles.
What Doyle's book makes clear is that when it comes to Detroit, the
carrot just doesn't work. Isn't it time to try a little stick?
Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime
Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based
Multinational Monitor. Mokhiber and Weissman are co-authors of Corporate
Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe,
Maine: Common Courage Press, 1999, http://www.corporatepredators.org)
(c) Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman