Hybrids used to be the environmentalists’ great shining hope for combating auto pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and gas guzzling. Those were the romance days for hybrids, the first two or three years following their introduction in 2000. But the honeymoon is over. With the emergence of performance-oriented hybrids, and ultra-mild hybrid systems, environmentalists now see the technology as one more example of how Big Auto has hoodwinked consumers into believing their products are as green as they can possibly get. But it may be too late for the automakers to put the hybrid cat back in the bag. Everybody has seen what the best of hybrid technology can do, shattering Detroit’s myth that it lacks the know-how to greatly extend average fuel economy. "Hybrids are the poster child for the fuel economy debate," said Jason Mark, director of the Clean Vehicles Program for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Guzzle a Little, Guzzle a Lot
The Union of Concerned Scientists, like the Sierra Club, BlueWater Network, the Rainforest Action Network/Global Exchange, and others, share the view that the latest hybrids are being used as greenwash, but they appear divided on which car company is the worst culprit. The UCS, for example, sees General Motors as enemy number one. They have applied the term "hollow hybrid" to GM’s current hybrid offerings. Jason Mark said, "We think that hybrid technology ought to be reserved for the environmental and consumer benefits they can deliver. Every quasi-hybrid under the sun is being labeled as hybrid for public relations benefits." Mark thinks that hybrid technology should be put to better uses than turning a 16-mpg vehicle into an 18-mpg vehicle. "The point is not to turn extreme gas-guzzlers into moderate gas guzzlers."

What perturbs Mark and others is not only the mislabeling or misuse of hybrid technology on the part of certain automakers, but that those same automakers are lobbying and litigating to block any public policy that will hold them accountable for the detrimental environmental and social effects of their products. Mark calls GM "the bad boys of public policy for fuel economy, emissions, and greenhouse gases. In all public forums, they are the most aggressive in fighting environmental regulations. If you ask anybody to rank the automakers on their policy performance, GM would be on the bottom."

Prove That It’s Easy Being Green
The folks at Jumpstart Ford, a project of Global Exchange and the Rainforest Action Network, might disagree. Their disapproval and public protests are aimed at the Ford Motor Co.. Jennifer Krill, zero emissions campaign director for the Rainforest Action Network, thinks that Ford deserves credit for producing the Ford Escape Hybrid. But, she said, the same year that Ford released the Escape Hybrid, they "had the worst overall fuel-efficiency record. One hybrid doesn’t let them off the hook for being the most wasteful automaker."

Don’t think that Prius-producing Toyota has escaped the attention of the environmentalists. Last fall, when Toyota launched their "Hybrid Synergy Drive" ad campaign, BlueWater Network launched their own campaign, entitled "Toyota: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing." The full-page ads in the New York Times and other publications showed CEO Katsuaki Watanabe in the foreground and a man wearing a wolf’s head in the background. Danielle Fugere, director of climate change at BlueWater, said, " What people don’t know, and what we wanted to tell them, is that Toyota is not as green as it makes itself out to be. Yes, it has some good green technology, like the Prius. But Toyota has consistently lobbied against every attempt to increase vehicle fuel economy. It’s part of a group of automakers suing against California’s greenhouse gas law."

Whereas the various environmental groups have each chosen a different company to target for their public education campaigns, they stand unified in their criticism of the automakers who have sued California to block the enactment of AB1493, the greenhouse-gas-capping law known as the Pavley Law. The regulation, which could affect as much as 30 percent of the U.S. market (not just California), would phase in from 2009 to 2016. It would require the auto industry to cut greenhouse gas emissions from its new fleets by approximately 30 percent.

The response from automakers is that greenhouse gas restrictions are a surrogate for fuel economy, because increasing fuel efficiency is the only effective way to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. Therefore, they claim, California is trying to regulate fuel economy standards, which only can be established at the federal level. Otherwise, they argue, manufacturers would have to produce vehicles based on two or more different emissions standards. (In fact, tailpipe emissions are already set at the state level.)

BlueWaterNetwork, Rainforest Action Network, Global Exchange, the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense, and the National Resources Defense Council have all joined the lawsuit to defend the Pavley Law against the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Alliance of International Automobile Manufacturers, which includes all of the major carmakers, including those who sell hybrids.

The state of California and the environmental groups say that greenhouse gas emissions are not strictly related to fuel economy. Fugere said, "The automakers can comply by using alternative fuel vehicles. In some cases, an alternative fuel vehicle will get less fuel economy. California doesn’t care if fuel economy goes up or goes down. We want to know how much CO2 is coming up from the tailpipe."

The legal contest, scheduled for 2007, is shaping up into the biggest battle over automobile emissions and efficiency since CAFE was enacted 30 years ago.

It also highlights the fact that producing a hybrid—however you define it—no longer qualifies a car company as a green company. Fugere said, "I would like to have a name like ‘hybrid’ to denote this is a great, fuel-efficient vehicle. (But) Point of fact, the auto manufacturers are using the hybrid terminology to fool people."

Now, the only way for a car company to considered environmentally friendly is to remove their name from the lawsuit blocking the Pavley Law. Toyota? Honda? Ford? Anybody?