Shift to smaller vehicles could hurt state plant

JANESVILLE -- The Chevrolet Suburban and the other sport utility vehicles built in Janesville have long been popular with car buyers who covet them for their size and power. But SUVs are under heavy pressure as sales slide and Congress and the Wh...

JANESVILLE -- The Chevrolet Suburban and the other sport utility vehicles built in Janesville have long been popular with car buyers who covet them for their size and power. But SUVs are under heavy pressure as sales slide and Congress and the White House press for stronger fuel economy standards.

Because they consume so much fuel, SUVs and other light trucks are among the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gases in the country. Carbon dioxide emissions from these vehicles jumped 74 percent from 1990 to 2005, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Emissions from cars rose less than 1 percent. Any shift to cleaner vehicles, however, could have huge consequences for General Motors Corp. in Wisconsin.

"It's a real problem for Janesville, because if consumers stop buying Tahoes and Suburbans, it's going to put a lot of pressure on that plant," said U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., whose district includes the factory.

The manufacturing facility employs more than 3,000 people.

"The future of that plant largely depends on people continuing to buy more SUVs," Ryan said.


But what's good for the southern Wisconsin economy might not be best for the environment, scientists and environmental advocates say. An SUV made in Janesville will produce more than twice the amount of carbon dioxide emissions as a vehicle that gets 40 miles per gallon, according to the EPA.

"From our perspective, individual households need to right-size their vehicles for their needs," said Roland Hwang, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.

One big vehicle

The Chevy Suburban is more than 18 feet long -- and would rise nearly the height of a two-story building if stood on end. Its allure is its size and safety and the ability to haul everything from a load of kids to gear for the cottage. Starting price tag: $34,000.

In Wisconsin, with more than 600,000 registered boats and 200,000 snowmobiles, we drive a lot of SUVs.

There are now more than 600,000 SUVs on Wisconsin roads -- three times as many as a decade ago, according to a Journal Sentinel analysis of 2005 federal vehicle registration data.

Carbon dioxide emissions from cars, SUVs, pickup trucks and minivans grew faster from 1990 to 2004 in Wisconsin than in all neighboring states but Minnesota, according to federal Energy Department data. Still, Wisconsin's 19 percent growth in emissions was below the national average of 23 percent, largely because we drive fewer miles a year than the national average.

Nowhere in Wisconsin is the love of the SUV more vital than in Janesville. GM has long revved up the local economy with high salaries and benefits. The average worker earns $54,000 a year. The plant's 2006 payroll was $262 million.


In Wisconsin, cars and light trucks -- including SUVs and pickup trucks -- rank second behind coal-burning power plants and factories as the largest sources of greenhouse gases, a Journal Sentinel analysis of state energy and emissions data found. One of every 5 tons of carbon dioxide emitted in the state in 2005 came from cars and light trucks. A 2007 Chevrolet Suburban generates up to 11.4 tons a year in greenhouse gases under average driving conditions, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. By comparison, the bestselling car in the country, the Toyota Camry, generates up to 7.2 tons -- or 37 percent less.

Sales are down

Inside GM's sprawling plant, the smell of fresh truck paint mingles with the roar of the assembly line. But the line is moving slower these days. As gas prices climbed in 2006, GM's sales of SUVs made in Janesville fell by 3 percent. The slide continued this year, with sales down 4 percent through April. As a result, GM canceled overtime and slowed the speed of the production line in 2007 by 12 percent. Fifty SUVs leave the factory floor every hour as workers give vehicles a final inspection and fill each tank with 5 gallons of gas.

Even though sales slid last year, SUVs remain popular in southeastern Wisconsin and last year accounted for one-fourth of all vehicles sold, regional sales figures show.

Across the state, we also are driving more and more -- 60 billion miles a year, up 63 percent from 1985, according to the state Department of Transportation. This would take us to the sun and back more than 300 times. The sharp jump is due to population and employment growth, sprawl and, until recently, relatively cheap gasoline, according to the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.

We have also seen a 5 percent drop in overall fuel economy since 1987 because of the growth of SUVs and pickup trucks.

So even though cars are running cleaner than they used to, Wisconsin cars and trucks released almost a quarter more greenhouse gases in 2005 than in 1985, the Journal Sentinel found.

Robots and mallets


It takes 22 hours to assemble a Suburban in Janesville. Frames are shipped from Mexico, engines are delivered from Flint, Mich., and seats arrive from Lear Corp., a local supplier.

Sparks fly like Roman candles as robots weld metal panels. Truck bodies are plunged into pools of electrically charged paint. A worker uses a rubber mallet to coax a bumper into place.

Kelly Brown, 36, of Eagle in Waukesha County is a single mother with two children. She's been on welfare, tried attending the Milwaukee Area Technical College in Mequon and worked in day care. Getting a job at GM "happens once in a lifetime," she said. Brown transferred to Janesville from Delphi Corp., a former unit of GM, in Oak Creek last September. She now fills in on different assembly jobs and has never had second thoughts about the long-term prospects of building SUVs. After all, the factory has hung on, despite being on the bubble for years. It first began making tractors in 1919 and is GM's oldest plant.

Janesville was one of 14 assembly plants identified as vulnerable to shutdown because it makes gas guzzlers, according to a 2005 study by the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. The plant was spared later that year when GM announced a major round of cutbacks and plant closings.

Workers are encouraged by GM's adoption of eco-friendly technology. Janesville has produced more than a half-million trucks capable of burning fuel containing up to 85 percent ethanol -- so-called E85. Ethanol is made from corn or other plants and produces no net carbon dioxide emissions when burned as fuel. Also, to improve gas mileage, in 2006 GM incorporated new engine technology that shuts down unneeded cylinders, improving mileage by 10 percent. Fuel economy has risen 2 to 3 mpg in five years, and they now get an average of 16 to 18 mpg..

Addressing global warming will be a balancing act for U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., who represents Janesville suburbs as well as Madison, with its environmentally aware population. She credits GM for its promotion of E85-equipped vehicles but said, "There is just a general recognition throughout the American public that energy independence as well as a strategy to combat global warming is necessary -- and it can't be put off any longer."

In Washington last week, President Bush proposed higher fuel efficiency standards after the Supreme Court ruled in April that carbon dioxide is a pollutant that must be regulated. Also this month, a Senate committee advanced legislation that would improve fuel economy by 40 percent by 2020. The increase would be the most significant since the 1970s.

-- Copyright © 2007, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel


Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Meanwhile, hybrid devotee want GM and other automakers to move faster with development of vehicles that burn less gas. All the trends point in that direction.

"Do you pay the price now, when gas is $3.50," Fons asked, "or do you wait until it's too late?"

Automakers say they want cars to be more fuel efficient, as well, but oppose new mandates.

GM, which lost its rank as the No. 1 seller of cars and trucks worldwide in the first quarter, will introduce a hybrid version of the Suburban in the fall with 25 percent better gas mileage than Suburbans on the road today. The hybrid will be made in Arlington, Texas. But Cole said that if it sells well, or if Congress mandates higher fuel economy, GM will make hybrid SUVs in Janesville, too.

"The average person really wants to have their cake and eat it, too," said Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. "They do want fuel efficiency. There's no question about that. But they also want utility."

On her commute to Janesville, GM worker Brown drives a 2004 maroon Suburban. On her back-roads drive, she's used her four-wheel drive to pull a car out of the ditch during a snowstorm. The big cargo area also helps when she is called on to haul instruments for her daughter's high school band concerts. And she feels safe in her SUV.

In 2003, Brown was driving her old vehicle, a Tahoe, when a driver turned in front of her.


"His mistake," Brown said. "I hit him on the passenger side -- he bit through his tongue and the girl with him broke her arm and had to be taken away in Flight for Life."

Brown bruised her knee.

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