Eco-Campaign Against Ford Kicks Off

Members of Global Exchange, the Rainforest Action Network and other local activists will be crashing the party during Ford Motor Co.'s centennial celebration this weekend (June 14-16) at its world headquarters in Dearborn, Mich.

Ford's annual shareholder meeting is on Monday, and during the weekend the company has planned performances by big-name musicians, including Toby Keith, and other events for the public. Rainforest Action Network (RAN) and Global Exchange are using the centennial as the major kick-off for their new campaign to push Ford to develop more fuel-efficient technology in all its vehicles.

There will be a rally on Saturday at noon and ongoing leafleting and small demonstrations at the headquarters, as well as a visit by a highly visible surprise guest (think: Barney) on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings.

On Wednesday morning, activists hung a banner from the roof of the 12-story Griswold building in downtown Detroit saying, "Ford: Driving America's Oil Addiction" and showing the earth run over by a giant SUV tire tread.

The campaign, which was launched in early May and will continue well beyond this weekend's events, is aimed at Ford specifically because CEO Bill Ford Jr. has made environmentalism a key aspect of his public relations strategy. The Sierra Club is also running its own campaign against Ford, which has been going on for a year, with ads and other components.

While Ford spokespeople say they have made numerous environmental improvements and innovations in the past two years, critics are saying they haven't done enough. "Last year when Congress was considering raising fuel efficiency standards, they lobbied against that," said Sierra Club spokesman Zack Roth. "Then Bill Ford went back on a promise to raise fuel efficiency standards in SUVs by 25 percent by 2005. He has renewed his pledge to develop hydrogen fuel cell cars, but those are a long way from being on the market. They could be doing things starting today that could be putting more fuel efficient vehicles on the market."

The campaign kicked off with a letter-writing drive and a round of 21 protests at dealerships around the country, and one in Canada, on June 7. There was also a preliminary protest at a Ford dealership in San Francisco on May 31 where two protesters got arrested. Future strategies of the campaign will include targeting buyers of Ford fleets, like police departments, and convincing them to buy more fuel efficient vehicles, said RAN organizer Christine Corwin.

The demands of the RAN/Global Exchange campaign are that Ford bring its average fuel efficiency to 50 miles per gallon for its entire fleet by 2010, and that it reach zero emissions on all its vehicles by 2020. Statements by RAN say that with current technology, Ford could increase its average efficiency to 40 mpg now, and by converting all its new vehicles to hybrids, it could reach 60 mpg.

Ford spokesperson Francine Romine said that while the company is open to talking with its critics, those goals are impossible.

"That's simply not realistic" she said of the two demands. "This is a very competitive industry. If someone could be meeting these demands, they would be. As for vehicles with zero emissions, we have [cars with very low 'partial zero' emissions]. The only other thing you can get is electric vehicles, but we got out of the electric vehicles market already because there was low-to-no demand."

She said the company is the largest supplier of cleaner propane and natural gas-powered vehicles in the United States; that it has three of the nation's best-in-class vehicles for fuel efficiency; that the Escape, a hybrid gas/electric SUV, will finally be on the market next year and that the "partial zero" emissions vehicles are being sold in limited numbers in some states on the East Coast and in California.

Rather than electric cars, she said the company is putting its efforts into developing hydrogen fuel cell technology, which would have zero emissions. But right now, the technology is in such preliminary stages that it would cost millions of dollars for one car. "To bring that cost down, there are all sorts of infrastructure changes in the industry that have to be made." she said. "We're probably 20 years away from marketing a fuel cell car."

But American automakers have not followed Honda and Toyota's lead in producing sucessful, well-reviewed gas-electric hybrids. Hybrids combine an electric motor with a gas-burning engine, and charge the battery through recapturing braking energy and other innovative techniques, so you never have to plug the car into an electric outlet. Models currently on the market get 45 to 70 mpg.

"When Honda and Toyota came out with their [hybrid] cars, there was a waiting list to get them," Roth said. "The demand has to do with their marketing of the car -- if they're not marketing it, there won't be demand. But if Honda and Toyota can succeed with an electric [hybrid] car, why can't Ford too?"

Average fuel efficiency in the U.S. is actually at its lowest point since 1980. Congress passed Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) standards in 1975, requiring that new cars average 27.5 miles per gallon and light trucks 20.7 miles per gallon. Companies can manufacture vehicles with lower efficiencies provided they are balanced out by vehicles with higher ones. The Sierra Club notes that updated CAFÉ standards, mandating 45 mpg for cars and 34 mpg for light trucks, would cut carbon dioxide pollution by 600 million tons per year and save consumers about $45 billion each year at the gas pump.

The Sierra Club's ad, which is running on June 16, Ford's actual anniversary, in The New York Times and Business Week, juxtaposes different old and new technologies -- a rotary phone and modern phone, old and new stereo technology. Then it shows a Model T from a century ago and points out that its fuel efficiency was 25 miles per gallon, while a modern SUV gets only 19 mpg.

"Their fuel efficiency has decreased, mainly because SUVs make up such a huge portion of their sales," said Roth. "Even though the technology is getting better, their fuel efficiency is getting worse."

Along with the ads, the Sierra Club is pushing the candidacy of former Sierra Club president Dr. Robert Cox for the Ford board of directors, which is elected by all Ford shareholders. Cox will be a guest on various radio talk shows and other news outlets in the coming weeks promoting greater fuel economy.

"I want to help make Ford an innovative, technologically advanced, 21st century company," said Cox in a statement. "By making fuel economy a priority, Ford can recapture lost market share, keep pace with foreign competition and help protect the environment."

Global Exchange organizer Jason Mark said that while they worked with local activists to pull off the weekend's events, the overall response from the general public wasn't warm.

"It's a company town," he said. "Detroit is a city that's down on its luck, it's been beaten down by corporate globalization. I think they have the notion, which we're trying to help dispel, that there's a trade-off between fuel efficiency and the economy, meaning jobs. But if you look at the studies, about 41,000 jobs would be created by moving toward cleaner technology."

Along with the public actions, representatives of Global Exchange and RAN will be present to vote and make statements in the shareholders meeting on June 16.

Romine said the company would continue to talk with the campaigners, though they are not exactly pleased with the campaign. "I think it's unfortunate that any organization would choose to target a company such as Ford that has 100 years of technological innovation behind it," she said.

RAN and Global Exchange note that they are targeting Ford not because it is worse than other auto companies, but because its prominence and stated commitment to the environment makes it a good candidate to lead industry-wide changes. Corwin and Roth said they think the campaign is already having a tangible effect on the company. Roth noted that at a recent speech, Ford Jr. addressed the campaigners' demands.

"I definitely think they're not used to being protested," said Corwin. "The message comes through loud and clear when they see people out there holding signs. I think it will have a big impact."

Kari Lydersen writes for the Washington Post and is an instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program in Chicago.

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