Once upon a time, back oh, say, a year or so ago, back when ordinary public stockholders owned the car companies, it mattered a great deal. Now, maybe not.
At issue is whether a single state can implement pollution restrictions for cars that require national manufacturers to build one car for 49 states and another for the 50th. When, however, the 50th is California, population 38.6 million, the size of the market pretty much precludes manufacturers from any realistic option of walking away. That’s why they fought for years efforts by California politicians to impose fuel efficiency and emissions standards tougher than those that apply to the rest of the country.
It’s amazing the difference that a few months makes. On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency gave California permission to impose its own regulations. “This decision puts the law and science first,” said EPA administrator Lisa Jackson. Those are the buzzwords — law and science — that the Obama administration uses to gloss over serious philosophical disagreements, as it did with federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.
Events have overtaken the issues of the debate. The House-passed energy tax will be far more consequential than anything California might have done to raise the cost of a single product. And the major car companies, Ford excluded, are owned by the government or the auto workers’ union. Its voice in opposition is largely silenced.
While the significance of this particular case has been diminished by the political shift, the fact remains that no company should be forced to manufacturer one product for California, or any other large-market state, and another that’s materially different for the rest of the country.