Obama's First Green Orders Reverse Bush Policy on Emissions, Fuel Efficiency

Obama's First Green Orders Reverse Bush Policy on Emissions, Fuel Efficiency

Saying the days of federal heel-dragging are over, President Barack Obama directed the Environmental Protection Agency today to reconsider a ruling that prevented California and more than a dozen other states from enforcing stricter auto emissions laws and ordered the Department of Transportation to implement higher fuel efficiency standards.

"The federal government must work with, not against, states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," Obama said in remarks this morning at the White House before signing the two directives. (See his comments in full here.) "California has shown bold and bipartisan leadership through its effort to forge 21st-century standards, and over a dozen states have followed its lead. But instead of serving as a partner, Washington stood in their way. This refusal to lead risks the creation of a confusing and patchwork set of standards that hurts the environment and the auto industry.

"The days of Washington dragging its heels are over. My administration will not deny facts; we will be guided by them. We cannot afford to pass the buck or push the burden onto the states. And that's why I'm directing the Environmental Protection Agency to immediately review the denial of the California waiver request and determine the best way forward."

The president also ordered the Department to the Department of Transportation to develop guidelines for the nation's auto fleet to reach average fuel efficiency of 35 miles per gallon by 2020, if not sooner, as had been mandated by Congress. A 2007 law, which had been on the books but not put into effect, calls for stepping up fuel economy on an annual basis starting with the 2011 model year. Obama's order set that requirement on track.

Although the president did not specifically order the EPA to reverse the agency's previous ruling, his directives were widely viewed as laying the groundwork for states to set tougher auto emissions regulations than those currently on federal books and as a prod to U.S. automakers for going into high gear on production of more fuel efficient cars.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and other advocates of stricter emissions and climate change policy hailed Obama's moves today.

"With this announcement from President Obama less than a week into his administration, it is clear that California and the environment now have a strong ally in the White House," Schwarzenegger said in a statement. "Allowing California and other states to aggressively reduce their own harmful vehicle tailpipe emissions would be a historic win for clean air and for millions of Americans who want more fuel-efficient, environmentally-friendly cars."

California has long sought to enforce regulations to cut GHG emissions from passenger vehicles 30 percent by 2016. The state first requested a waiver from the EPA in 2005 under the Clean Air Act in order to proceed with the program. The request was initially ignored, then denied by the EPA, even though 14 other states started their own drives to go forward with similar regulations. Last week, Schwarzenegger and California Air Board Resources Chief Mary Nichols moved swiftly in sending an appeal to President Obama. Their letters asking for reconsideration by the EPA reached Washington, D.C., the day after the chief executive's inauguration.

"The automobile industry fought this tooth and nail, but we never gave up," Schwarzenegger said this afternoon. (A video of his remarks is available here.)

The Sierra Club and other environmental advocates also applauded the president's decisions.

"We are optimistic that after proper review, EPA will grant the waiver -- this will give these states the greenlight to tackle global warming pollution from cars and light trucks," the Sierra Club said in a statement.

At the Natural Resources Defense Council, organization President Frances Beinecke said, "President Obama's announcement is a big step in fulfilling his campaign promises for a clean energy economy that will move America beyond oil, create new jobs and reduce global warming pollution. This is a strong signal to the world that America is ready to quickly step forward as a leader in the fight against global warming."

President Obama ordered the Department of Transportation to implement higher fuel efficiency standards. //www.flickr.com/photos/34323101@N00/10411407/

Auto industry and Michigan lawmakers, for the most part, said they would support a single emissions standard.

"GM is working aggressively on the products and the advance technologies that match the nation's and consumer's priorities to save energy and reduce emissions," General Motors said in a company statement. "We're ready to engage the Obama administration and the Congress on policies that support meaningful and workable solutions and targets that benefit consumers from coast to coast."

Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers CEO Dave McCurdy said, "The alliance supports a nationwide program that bridges state and federal concerns and moves all stakeholders forward, and we are ready to work with the administration on developing a national approach."

U.S. Representative Mike Rogers, R-Mich., harshly criticized the directives, saying they would "absolutely destroy jobs in Michigan."

"With the stroke of a pen, the president has unleashed a hornet's nest of new local, state and federal regulations on the auto industry," Rogers said. "We have an absolute crisis in the American auto industry and today's decision to pile on new regulations without any substantive help is a cruel blow to Michigan workers and their families."

However, Ann Mesnikoff, the Sierra Club's senior Washington representative, said this afternoon, "We believe that the auto industry should have no trouble meeting the challenge set by our new president. The industry has the technology and the know-how to comply with both California's standards and new fuel economy standards. It is time for the industry to demonstrate to the American people (who have already given them billions in taxpayer dollars) that they are committed to meeting the standards that science and the President have stated are necessary."

In other environmental news, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced today that Washington attorney Todd Stern will be the special envoy for climate change and serve as the administration's chief climate negotiator, leading talks at the United Nations climate conferences and smaller sessions.

Stern was a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a partner at WilmerHale, the law firm, where he was vice chairman of the Public Policy and Strategy Group.