Big Three Escalate Attack on Electric Car : Pollution: Auto makers hope anti-regulatory mood aids new fight against zero-emission mandate.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Riding the anti-regulatory wave sweeping the country, the nation's auto makers are mounting a renewed assault on California's electric-vehicle mandate, this time on a broader, grass-roots level.

The auto makers have launched an extensive lobbying campaign in Sacramento, plan to spend millions of dollars on an advertising campaign and are aligning themselves with a variety of business, consumer and other interest groups.

The effort is tied to political changes that have swept Sacramento and Washington, bringing a new agenda of fewer regulations and smaller government. Even the political ambitions of Gov. Pete Wilson may play into their game plan.

While success is far from certain, some auto officials seem emboldened as never before. Some believe that for the first time in years, the industry has a chance to put the brakes on the electric vehicle.

"There is a perception by the auto makers, the public and some legislators that it is time to bring some sense to these regulations," said Samuel Leonard, GM's director of vehicle emissions and fuel efficiency.

In California, electric vehicle supporters challenge any assertion that the public does not support zero-emission vehicles, mandated as a way for California to meet state and federal clean air standards.

They insist that Wilson and the California Air Resources Board will staunchly defend the mandate. "We have no indication that they are going to reverse course," said Joe Caves, legislative advocate for the Union of Concerned Scientists, which supports electric vehicle development.

Still, the auto makers are working hard to change minds. The American Automobile Manufacturers Assn., the Big Three's chief lobbying arm, has held recent meetings with Wilson's top aides, key ARB staff members and state legislators.

The auto group currently is seeking a public relations firm to conduct a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign designed to sway Californians on the electric vehicle issue.

The car makers are also seeking support in other arenas. The industry group and the American International Automobile Manufacturers, which represents the Japanese car makers, are trying to persuade the influential California Manufacturers Assn. to join them in efforts to overturn the mandate.

The group has taken no official position yet, but some members complain that a policy in opposition to the mandate is being spearheaded by the auto and oil industry. The critics fear dropping the electric vehicle rules would mean stricter emissions requirements on small manufacturers.

One of the chief messages of the auto industry's new campaign is that the state's requirement that car makers produce electric vehicles by 1998 is an unwarranted intrusion by government into the marketplace.

The car makers say electric vehicles will come at a high cost but with little environmental benefit. The cost amounts to an unfunded mandate dictated by the state, said Jason Vines, a Chrysler spokesman in Washington.

"We see the electric vehicle as a poster child for these issues," he said.

Under California law, 2% of the autos offered for sale by major car makers in 1998 must be zero-emission vehicles. Only electric vehicles now qualify as zero-emission. The sales requirement increases to 10% by 2003.

The auto makers argue that current-generation electric vehicles have insufficient range and will cost too much. But proponents say the electric vehicles, even with limitations, will be a hit with consumers.

The auto makers themselves act almost schizophrenic about electric vehicles. They proudly boast about the battery-powered cars they developed, while saying their performance thus far is so bad no one would buy them.

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The electric-vehicle debate is being waged on several fronts. In the Northeast, the auto makers sought to have 12 states adopt a plan providing cleaner cars but not requiring electric vehicles. However, the states said it was the option of each to decide whether to require electric vehicles.

Two states, New York and Massachusetts, have adopted electric vehicles mandates. But Republican Massachusetts Gov. William Weld recently offered to delay implementation for two years.

In California, the Big Three failed to convince regulators in 1994 to relax the zero-emission mandate. By law, the mandate must be reviewed every two years to determine if the technology is advancing sufficiently.

Now, the auto makers are pushing ARB to move up the next review from 1996 to this year. Otherwise, they will have to make millions of dollars in production outlays on vehicles they say are not ready for the marketplace.

"We want them to look at it from a different perspective," said Eric Ridenour, Chrysler's director of environment and energy planning. "Cost-benefit analysis, sound science and risk assessment are the buzz words."

A change in the mandate is in the hands of the ARB, whose top officials are appointed by Wilson. The Legislature also could change the regulations through a new law.

George Dunn, Wilson's chief of staff, met with Andrew Card, executive director of the auto maker's association, in February. But a Wilson spokesman said the governor has not wavered in his support of the mandate.

With Wilson now in the presidential race--he announced Thursday that he was forming an exploratory committee--the battle over the electric vehicle mandate could be in for some interesting twists as he seeks money and support.

Dennis Zane, executive director of the Coalition for Clean Air, an environmental group, said it was unlikely Wilson would reverse himself on electric vehicles and risk loss of public support in California.

He said the auto industry, which has closed all but one factory in California, has little political clout in the state. But the auto makers, along with the oil companies, have tremendous political influence and are not the enemies that a presidential hopeful would want, he said.

Zane believes the auto companies are not expecting Wilson to openly support a relaxation of the electric vehicle mandate. But they hope that he may agree to stand on the sidelines if the Legislature takes up the issue.

"We expect the auto industry will put muscle behind the Legislature and hope the governor would not veto a roll-back bill," Zane said.

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