The Green Future of the 'New GM'

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What to make of this week’s bankruptcy filing by General Motors? The beginning of the end? The end of the beginning? A death? Rebirth? Something in between?

Given the months-long anticipation of this development, much already has been written and said, and many fingers pointed. GM, as Paul Ingrassia recently opined in the Wall Street Journal, made "decades of dumb decisions."  

 And while there’s truth to that, GM, Chrysler, and the other automotive companies didn’t create this mess by themselves. It took a village — unions, consumers, regulators, and assorted others — to bring the car companies to their knees.

What of the environmental community? That term, of course, is a loose one, given that this "community" rarely speaks with a singular voice. As a rule, environmentalists have long been harsh critics of GM, citing the gas-guzzling Hummer, the company’s participation in an industry lawsuit against California’s regulation of carbon dioxide as a pollutant, its longstanding opposition to government-mandated fuel-efficiency regulations, and that "fact" that it "killed" the electric car. Of course, it wasn’t just GM. Many other car makers — foreign and domestic — sided with GM on the lawsuits and the regulatory stance, marketed gas-guzzling behemoths, and dragged their collective feet on developing alt-fuel technologies. But the iconic GM got the brunt of the activists’ criticism.

Today, many of these criticisms are nearly moot. GM reportedly has found a buyer for Hummer, something it has been trying to do for the past year. Several weeks ago, the White House proposed the first federal standard for greenhouse gas tailpipe emissions, and said it would harmonize those standards both with California’s proposed "Pavley" emissions standards and with national corporate average fuel economy standards. And, of course, GM has been working for more than two years on its revolutionary Chevy Volt, an

"extended range" electric vehicle that’s received high praise from activists and engineers alike. Even with the bankruptcy, the Volt remains on track to hit the market at the end of next year.

In my recent book, I chronicled how GM began changing the conversation with the environmental community, beginning in late 2005, as the company promoted biofuels as a potential alternative fuel. In late 2006, GM leaders briefed a group of environmentalists about the Volt, even before it unveiled the car to the press, helping to ensure a group of supportive voices at the car’s debut in early 2007. (Remarkably, the greenies kept their promise of confidentiality: There were no leaks.)

Over the past year, and especially over the past six months, GM stepped up its outreach to the major environmental groups, engaging them several times in conference calls and face-to-face meetings, seeking their support during the federal government’s deliberations over its fate. GreenOrder, the sustainability strategy firm with which I am affiliated, helped facilitate many of these calls, which included Elizabeth Lowery, GM’s Vice President, Environment, Energy, and Safety Policy, and — on two occasions — Rick Wagoner, GM’s now-vanquished CEO. The calls offered an opportunity for GM’s leadership to engage directly with one of its key stakeholder groups to describe its vision and plans, field questions, and listen to concerns.

I was struck by the civility of the whole affair, as two battle-scarred warriors — Big Auto and Big Green — came together, if not as friends, at least as colleagues with shared goals. The enviro leaders were surprisingly supportive — surprising, that is, because of the animosity and lack of trust that had grown and hardened over the years between the two camps. The activists offered support and encouragement to the auto maker. It was heartening to witness the rapprochement, though in the end, it may have been too little, too late.

But those conversations may yet prove their value, as the "New GM" emerges in the coming months. Before the economy tanked last fall, GM seemed to be "getting it," shifting its focus toward vehicle electrification and renewable fuels for the vehicles on its drawing boards. Its R&D leaders were pondering a world in which there could someday be 2 billion vehicles, roughly twice as many as today, and what that might mean for safety, road congestion, and the environment. They were designing prototypes of small neighborhood electric vehicles. And they were thinking about the second and third generations of the Volt technology that will follow in 2011 and beyond.

No one really knows what form the New GM will take, of course, but from what I can tell, all these efforts will continue. Earlier this week, on the day GM filed its bankruptcy petition, Beth Lowery sent an email to her network of environmental leaders and other stakeholders, offering her perspective of what the filing meant for the car company’s future. It said in part:

The New GM will focus on reinventing not just ourselves, but transportation systems around the world. An essential starting point is vehicle electrification, including our new advanced battery lab in Warren, Michigan, where we will continue to develop battery technology to support electric vehicle programs such as the Chevrolet Volt. Also, we will continue to work with partners to develop the infrastructure necessary to support advanced technologies, from flexible-fuel vehicles to urban electric vehicles.

I’m encouraged by that. While it will take months, if not years, to see whether and how the New GM will survive, let alone thrive, there are rays of hope amid the corporate carnage. And while the cynics and skeptics may deride the taxpayer-funded New GM as "Government Motors," I still have high hopes that in the coming years, it actually could stand for "Greener Mobility."

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