Lobby Firm Behind Climate Forgeries Helped Kill Higher CAFE Standards

The Washington lobbying firm of Bonner & Associates is facing protests and a possible wire fraud probe after it was revealed to have forged at least a dozen letters to Congress this summer that claimed to represent local grassroots groups opposed to fighting climate change.

preview_320_260_4.jpgA still from a 2001 Coalition for Vehicle Choice TV spot opposing higher CAFE standards. (Photo: Coloribus)

Since the forged letter scandal broke, Bonner’s past work on engineering faux-"grassroots" critics to defend industry, from tobacco companies to drug makers, has been well-documented.

But the firm can also lay claim to another pro-business lobbying victory: the narrow defeat of sweeping new auto fuel-efficiency rules nearly 20 years ago.

When then-Sen. Richard Bryan (D-NV) proposed in 1990 to gradually hike auto fuel-efficiency, or CAFE, to 40 miles per gallon, the auto industry hired Bonner and another lobbying group, E. Bruce Harrison, to help coax average citizens into condemning the bill.

That practice, known as "astro-turf" lobbying, is commonplace in Washington but not regulated by current ethics rules — although this week’s climate forgery scandal could change that.

As the New York Times reported in 1997 (and accessed via Nexis), Bonner’s push to bring down the Bryan CAFE plan focused on generating irrational fear of fuel-efficient vehicles:

Mr. Bonner set up a news conference in Washington and invited representatives of
groups that used big vehicles. A Nebraska farmer pointed out that a
Honda Civic could not haul a livestock trailer. A charity official from
South Dakota said disabled people needed big vans for their wheelchair
lifts. An Alabama sheriff said small cars could not be driven as fast
to crime scenes. Each speaker’s plane fare and expenses were paid for
by the auto makers, Mr. Bonner said.

That South Dakota charity official, according to later media reports, was fired for participating in the press conference because her group had taken no official position on CAFE standards.

But Bonner’s introduction of "astro-turfing" to the auto industry caught on, and soon E. Bruce Harrison — whose work against environmentalism began in the 1970s — was setting up the Coalition for Vehicle Choice, an Orwellian-sounding group that put a just-folks spin on Detroit’s craving for less efficient cars.

The Coalition’s leader at the time was Diane Steed, a Reagan-era highway safety official who later went on to head the American Highway Users Alliance, a leading road lobby group.

Bonner "pitched the fuel-economy issue as one of safety, not cost," according to a 1991 Chicago Tribune that quoted him describing the basics of lobbying strategy: "What matters to elected officials is what gets in their face, how it gets there, and who’s saying it."

Now a dispute over who really said what on climate change is threatening to end Bonner’s "astro-turf" reign. If his 1990 campaign had failed, Bryan’s bill would have brought national CAFE standards to 40mpg by 2001. As it stands, the Obama administration has recently committed to reaching 35.5mpg by 2016.


Obama Adviser: If EPA is Blocked on Emissions, Forget About CAFE Deal

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Lisa Jackson extended an olive branch this week to lawmakers who are pushing to block her from regulating carbon emissions in the absence of a congressional climate bill, but Jackson’s promise to delay action until next year appears to have made no headway with Republicans and coal-state Democrats.  Carol Browner, […]

Automakers Oppose Congressional Bid to Bar EPA From Limiting Emissions

The auto industry today aligned with the White House in the debate over a congressional bid to block the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating carbon emissions while lawmakers work to pass a climate bill, warning that such an attempt to yank EPA authority "would collapse" last year’s agreement to raise fuel-efficiency standards. (Photo: TreeHugger) […]

Study: Clean-Car Subsidies Alone Can’t Meet White House’s Climate Goals

Government subsidies for hybrid and electric cars, while "politically seductive," will fail to achieve the Obama administration’s national pollution-reduction goals if they are not coupled with a significant increase in fuel prices, according to a new study by Harvard University researchers. (Photo: Pop and Politics) The team at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International […]

EPA to Declare CO2 a Pollutant, Release Final Fuel-Efficiency Rules

Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson made news on two fronts in a meeting with reporters yesterday: she is preparing to officially declare carbon dioxide a pollutant under the Clean Air Act and release the final version of the Obama administration’s new fuel economy standard for autos. EPA administrator Lisa Jackson (Photo: Legal Planet) Neither […]

Higher Gas Prices Alone Won’t Make Cleaner Cars a Reality

The average carbon emissions of U.S. vehicles. (Image: EPA) It’s a storyline that the media and the auto industry have embraced: Higher gas prices are the magic ingredient that U.S. carmakers need in order to sell more fuel-efficient vehicles to consumers.  The narrative is tempting, especially for those who believe federal gas taxes need to […]