Energy Prices Create Strange Bedfellows in Car Business

High energy prices have forced unlikely partnerships in the auto industry. Carmakers and environmentalists suddenly find themselves on the same side of the fuel-efficiency debate. Ashok Gupta, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Air and Energy Program, and Ford Motor Co.'s Neil Golightly discuss the turn of events with Steve Inskeep.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

High energy prices are forcing automakers to rethink how they do business. A hostile political climate is forcing environmental groups to rethink their strategies and that helps to explain why both sides have put aside some of their differences to lobby for the same tax break. We've asked representatives from both sides to explain. Ashok Gupta is director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's air and energy program. Neil Golightly is director of Sustainable Business Strategies for the Ford Motor Company.

Mr. NEIL GOLIGHTLY (Director, Sustainable Business Strategies, Ford): Whether you call it energy security, whether you call it concerns around climate change or whether you call it concern around high fuel prices, you know, all of those merge in a common set of issues. I think that anybody in this industry that doesn't think that fuel prices by itself is not changing the way consumers are buying is whistling past the graveyard.

INSKEEP: All right, Mr. Gupta, I've read some public comments by you and by your organization suggesting that you're trying to take a different approach in the past. Is that true, and if so, what's the difference?

Mr. ASHOK GUPTA (Director, Air and Energy Program, Natural Resources Defense Council): Yes, we are. I think we realize that on the area of oil dependency and energy efficiency in vehicles, we've actually been making very little progress in the last 20 years and that we'd better take a different approach. And so the idea was, really, you know, form partnerships, form coalitions, and that was the only way we were going to actually achieve some success.

INSKEEP: When you say `form coalitions,' does that mean you need to get on the same page with the automakers or you won't get anything done?

Mr. GUPTA: Certainly, the autoworkers and the auto industry, and, in this case, also working with security hawks and religious conservatives, the whole range of partners you need to engage to change the political dynamic.

INSKEEP: Neil Golightly, do you think that Ford and the auto industry in general are taking a different approach these days than a few years ago?

Mr. GOLIGHTLY: Well, yes, certainly at Ford we are, and I think it's bigger than any one of us individually. The traditional kind of special interest adversarial approach to the whole issue is simply not working as effectively or, you know, at all. And actually we're finding as we talk about these issues that we have a whole lot more in common than I think any of us ever expected.

INSKEEP: Can you gentlemen give one concrete example of something that environmentalists, automakers, auto industry unions can all do together that benefits everybody?

Mr. GUPTA: I'll take a crack at that. I mean, one of the things we're looking at is figuring out how to use carrots and incentives as a way to bring new technology to market that can solve environmental problems and also help create jobs here domestically.

INSKEEP: What sort of incentives?

Mr. GUPTA: Manufacturing incentives in particular in terms of how to retool the factories so we can make more efficient cars and hybrids here domestically rather than having to import them.

INSKEEP: So you want tax incentives? So you want basically money from the government to help with this?

Mr. GUPTA: Absolutely. And I think the public gets a benefit. So there has to be an overall requirement that oil usage will go down and that's what we're talking to Ford Motor Company and the autoworkers and others about.

INSKEEP: Neil Golightly of Ford, why does the auto industry need an incentive in order to get into this market, which is expanding, people are making money in it, and what exactly do you want?

Mr. GOLIGHTLY: Well, I think one of the things that we're seeing is that any new product and any new technology that comes on to the market, especially something that costs more, I think we need to incentivize the demand for it.

INSKEEP: Millions of dollars, hundreds of millions of dollars?

Mr. GOLIGHTLY: If you're talking in the investment side, you know, it's certainly not too far from some of those numbers that you've thrown out. If you're looking at the purchase side, however, these products cost more, especially as they're new and before the costs start to come down as we get to economies of scale.

INSKEEP: All right.

Mr. GUPTA: And it's important to make sure that there's enough demand there, too, and that's why we've thought that manufacturing incentives and retooling is another way to drive down the cost to consumers to really drive the market.

INSKEEP: So you're lobbying for these tax incentives as part of the federal energy bill that is now being considered in Congress?

Mr. GUPTA: Yes, we are.

INSKEEP: Do you think that Congress is listening more closely to your organization, the Natural Resources Defense Council, because you're working with Ford and with the autoworkers unions?

Mr. GUPTA: I think the message is getting through in a better way. It's always better to hand people a solution rather than a problem. If we can narrow the issues, bring some solutions forward, then we really do have a chance to move something.

INSKEEP: Neil Golightly of Ford, aren't the automakers challenging tougher air emission standards in states like California?

Mr. GOLIGHTLY: What we're challenging in general is the notion that command and control regulation is the right way to attack this issue. The types of policies that allow for incentivizing investment in fuel-efficient technologies is the right way to go rather than a state-by-state or command-and-control type of approach.

INSKEEP: Ashok Gupta, do you agree with that part of Ford's policy, challenging air quality standards that exist now?

Mr. GUPTA: Absolutely not. Clearly there are still issues on which we disagree, and until we have a national policy in place, we think companies will have to innovate, not litigate.

INSKEEP: Ashok Gupta is director of the air and energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Thanks.

Mr. GUPTA: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Neil Golightly is director of Sustainable Business Strategies for the Ford Motor Company. Thanks very much.

Mr. GOLIGHTLY: Thank you very much, Steve.

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE (Host): And I'm Renee Montagne.

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