The Broken Promise of Bill Ford Jr.

The honeymoon between environmentalists and Bill Ford Jr., the CEO of Ford Motor Company, just ended in a head-on collision.

It was only three years ago that Mr. Ford pledged to increase the fuel mileage of Ford's SUV fleet by 25 percent. He garnered praise across the nation for his courageous acknowledgement of the auto industry's role in elevating greenhouse gases, and for his commitment to protecting the earth's fragile ecosystem.

Not to be outdone, General Motors and the Chrysler division of DaimlerChrysler promised to match or exceed Ford in fuel mileage gains. Reduced fuel use from these voluntary pledges would have saved the nation three billion barrels of oil in the next few decades, potentially more than the extractable reserves in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.

The media attention this garnered for the Ivy-educated, guitar-strumming great-grandson of the inventor of the Model T was well deserved.

Environmentalists were dizzy with glee -- it was a great start toward reducing the nation's oil addiction. Conservatives pointed to this as an example of how corporate America could solve the country's environmental problems without governmental regulations.

Mr. Ford celebrated the company's 100th anniversary in Detroit last weekend. But there wasn't much to celebrate. Like other auto companies, profits are poor and executives are having trouble selling cars even with zero interest loans. Greenhouse gas pollution and smog from Ford vehicles, which threatens public health, are at an all-time high. And environmentalists, who only recently had been laudatory of Mr. Ford, were hanging banners and demonstrating against his company.

How did this happen?

The eco-friendly perception of Mr. Ford began to change last summer, when as part of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, he threatened to sue California over the nation's first-ever legislation to reduce vehicle greenhouse gas emissions.

He damaged himself further when he personally lobbied Congress against increasing vehicle fuel mileage standards, and when he later reneged on his historic pledge to voluntarily increase the fuel mileage of Ford SUVs. With these actions, the environmental community began to see him not as a self-professed corporate steward of the nation's environment, but as just another swift-talking Detroit pitchman -- one with a flair for eco-rhetoric -- trumping up excuses to shirk his global environmental responsibilities.

Ford blamed breaking the pledge on "technological delays" and a failure to obtain tax credits for hybrid vehicles in Congress, and spokespeople refused to make any further commitments. Even worse, backing off removed any obligation for the world's first and third largest automakers, General Motors and the Chrysler division, to reduce their own emissions.

Industry insiders argue that Mr. Ford shouldn't have stuck his neck out in the first place, especially in a weak economy. But the fact is this -- if the Big Three lobbied Congress to increase, rather than decrease fuel mileage, Ford, DaimlerChrysler and GM could improve mileage on a level field against each other and their Japanese counterparts without financial harm. Japanese vehicles are now almost as big as Detroit's, so the argument about losing jobs to Japan is moot.

Furthermore, a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists demonstrates that SUV mileage can be virtually doubled (from 16 to 29 mpg), without increasing the lifetime cost of the vehicle. Equally safe, higher mileage SUVs would cost about $900 more in the showroom but over 10 years, would save consumers $3,100 in fuel. So even in a weak economy, improved fuel mileage standards shouldn't harm automotive profits.

Mr. Ford has long decried the traditional adversarial approach taken by the auto industry and the environmental community. The answer is this -- if he is sincere about his environmental commitment, he should lock himself in a room with key environmental leaders, and together map out a creative plan that will over the long-term protect the health of the planet and Ford. As the study by the Union of Concerned Scientists shows, they're not incompatible.

Russell Long, the executive director of Bluewater Network, conceived and drafted the California global warming law, which his organization sponsored, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from passenger vehicles. Last week, Bluewater Network launched a national pledge drive to boycott Ford until the company builds cleaner vehicles. Take the pledge at www.bluewaternetwork.org.

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