When the state Air Resources Board met two weeks ago for an important vote, one member -- Daniel Sperling -- took center stage.
At issue was whether the board would revise a mandate requiring automakers to produce 25,000 emission-free vehicles from 2012 through 2014.
After hours of public comments, a board member proposed cutting that number to 10,000. Sperling went further, calling for 7,500. His plan, projected on a screen, indicated that it would save carmakers more than $1 billion a year compared with current rules.
Debate lasted less than five minutes. "My heart is in the direction of just raising it to a higher level," said Chairwoman Mary Nichols. "But I . . . need to acknowledge that I'm not the expert on the technology."
All seven members present voted for Sperling's proposal -- stunning environmental and transportation activists.
"This is a very significant giveback to automakers," said V. John White, head of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies.
Though Sperling has emerged as the board's central arbiter in regulating auto emissions, he has long had a different relationship with the car and oil industries.
For 17 years, he has overseen the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis and has helped the institute raise millions of dollars from companies including Nissan Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp., General Motors Corp., Chevron Corp. and Exxon Mobil Corp.
From mid-2000 through the end of last year, the institute raised $7.9 million from petroleum and automotive companies, according to UC Davis records. From July 2006 through the end of 2007, the institute brought in $1.6 million from those industries -- 15.5% of its overall fundraising and 64% of all private contributions. Most of its funding comes from the government.
Decisions by the air board can have a direct effect on the bottom line of carmakers, oil companies and electric and gas utilities, particularly because many other states routinely adopt the agency's regulations. Such industries take an active interest in air board decisions, frequently lobbying it on specific regulatory positions.
Sperling, appointed to the board by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in February 2007, says he has gone to great lengths to avoid conflicts, including renouncing fundraising from companies doing business in California. "I've made every effort to distance myself from influences from all special-interest groups," Sperling wrote in an e-mail.
He says that the new rule he wrote sets a higher target number for zero-emission vehicles than had been proposed in a report by air board staff, and that it forces automakers to make 58,333 plug-in hybrid vehicles where none were required in the previous mandate.
Sperling said the March 27 vote had positive and negative implications for carmakers, adding that he learned in the 1990s to keep a balanced posture after a too-enthusiastic stance on zero-emission vehicles created problems.
"I lost funding [for the institute] from the Detroit car companies for many years, and I realized I should not be taking those policy positions unless it was really well-grounded," he said.
After he was named to the board, Sperling circulated a letter to faculty, students and staff at the institute saying he had consulted with UC Davis and air board lawyers to "identify and understand conflicts of interest that will arise, and how I should deal with them," along with a list of pledges designed to minimize the conflict.
Since his appointment, Sperling has filed two annual statements of economic interest, as required of members. The most recent, in January, disclosed dinners with executives at Exxon and DaimlerChrysler that totaled $100.
Linnea Bernard McCord, a law professor and ethics expert at Pepperdine University's Graziadio School of Business and Management, said the industry funding of Sperling's institute, regardless of his public disclosures, "gives the appearance of conflict of interest. It lends itself to a lack of credibility."
Sperling has been on the UC Davis faculty since 1982 and was founding director of the institute. He teaches courses in transportation, energy and environmental planning and clean-car technology and has written or co-written nearly a dozen books.
The institute has worked closely with auto companies on a variety of research projects, including running small test fleets of hydrogen fuel-cell and electric vehicles furnished by them. In 2002, he won the prestigious Carl Moyer Award from the Coalition for Clean Air.
A month before his appointment, Sperling was asked by the governor to co-write a low-carbon fuel standard for the state. In public comments about the report, he spoke for aggressive taxes on electricity generation, but against them for vehicles and vehicle fuels, saying "transportation is a different story."
Tim Carmichael, president of the Coalition for Clean Air, said, "Sperling obviously has a relationship with the carmakers, but I'm not aware of a conflict." But he added: "I have been disappointed for a decade that the Air Resources Board hasn't pushed the auto industry or oil industry further or faster, and [last month's] vote confirmed that."
The vote cut the number of battery electric and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles that carmakers are required to make by 2015 by more than 70%. According to estimates prepared by air board staff, that change could save the companies billions compared with the previous mandate.
The air board is required to have an automotive specialist. Sperling's predecessor, Patricia Pineda, resigned two years ago amid concerns that she was also employed as a vice president at Toyota. Her tenure lasted less than two years.
Before that, the seat was held for a decade by Joseph Calhoun, who had been assistant director of auto-emissions control for General Motors.
In September, the board's new chairwoman -- Nichols -- sold off stock in 23 companies that may have presented a conflict of interest, including oil companies Chevron, BP and Royal Dutch Shell, after the holdings were revealed in The Times and other newspapers.
And in January, the state Senate failed to confirm Fresno County Supervisor Judy Case for the air board after environmentalists complained that, as a cattle rancher, she sided too often with the agriculture industry on regulatory matters.
Since taking his seat, Sperling has recused himself from votes three times, citing his position at UC Davis in each case.
Dave Modisette, executive director of the California Electric Transportation Coalition, spoke at the March 27 hearing and advocated several positions on emission-free vehicles that were not adopted by the air board. He said he thought Sperling acted independently.
"There are some very good provisions in this mandate," he said.
Times staff writer Marc Lifsher contributed to this report.