By Steven Mufson and Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
With gasoline prices spiraling to record highs last week and a recent Supreme Court ruling requiring executive action to restrict global warming gases, President Bush yesterday ordered four federal agencies to draw up regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks by the end of his administration.
But Democrats, environmentalists and some energy experts said the president was simply delaying measures that he has the power to impose now.
During a brief event in the White House Rose Garden, Bush said he was asking for rules to "cut gasoline consumption and greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles." The regulations, he said, should be consistent with his previously announced plan to reduce projected gasoline consumption by 20 percent over the next decade.
"We're taking action by taking the first steps toward rules that will make our economy stronger, our environment cleaner and our nation more secure," Bush said.
Critics responded that the president's announcement fell short of what was needed at a time when gasoline prices are soaring, the U.S. automobile industry is in turmoil and Congress is trying to raise fuel efficiency standards for the first time in a generation.
They also noted that Bush had shifted the policy focus to the Environmental Protection Agency, which has a lengthy rulemaking process, and away from the Transportation Department, which sets corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards.
"In effect, the president asked his agency heads to share ideas and come up with a plan that is due three weeks before he leaves office," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the new House select committee on climate change. Markey said that "will leave motor vehicle fuel economy stuck in neutral until Bush's successor takes office."
The Sierra Club's executive director, Carl Pope, said Bush has "the clear authority" to raise CAFE standards, which haven't been changed in two decades. "He can and should act immediately to do so," Pope said.
Under Bush's plan, the Agriculture, Energy and Transportation departments will work with the EPA to develop regulations to lower vehicle emissions. "This is a complicated legal and technical matter, and it's going to take time to fully resolve," Bush said.
EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson said in a conference call that the administration will still prefer legislation mandating more efficient cars and trucks. In his State of the Union address in January, Bush called for raising fuel efficiency standards by about 4 percent a year for the next 10 years, but the administration has not introduced legislation to do so.
Two Senate measures that would have a similar effect have attracted widespread Democratic and Republican support.
Political pressure has mounted with gasoline prices. Yesterday, the Energy Department's Energy Information Administration announced that gas prices shot up by 5 cents a gallon last week, to an average of $3.10 for unleaded regular fuel. That beat the previous record set after Hurricane Katrina disrupted oil supplies in late 2005, although it fell short of the inflation-adjusted record of $3.22 a gallon set in 1981.
Bush's announcement yesterday came more than a month after the Supreme Court admonished his administration for failing to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks. The court said the Clean Air Act gives the EPA the responsibility to regulate carbon dioxide and other gases that scientists say contribute to global warming. The administration had argued that it did not have that authority or obligation under the act.
Yesterday, the administration went to federal appeals court in San Francisco to fight a lawsuit brought by 11 states, the District and four environmental groups that said the Transportation Department's 1.3 mile-per-gallon increase in standards for light trucks was inadequate. California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr., the lead plaintiff in the case, yesterday called the increase "pathetic and illegal."
Meanwhile, Bush renewed his call for a government mandate to boost the use of alternative fuels to 35 billion gallons by 2017, nearly seven times the current level. Together with greater fuel efficiency, the initiatives would cut gasoline usage by 20 percent from what it would otherwise be in 2017 and stop the growth of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions within 10 years, according to the White House.
One obstacle to raising fuel efficiency through legislation is John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
In a speech at the Detroit Economic Club yesterday, Dingell said that "it's time to move beyond what has become a stale and sterile debate over corporate average fuel economy standards." He added, "it is becoming clear that regulating miles per gallon is no longer adequate."
Dingell said that vehicles account for only 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and that he would insist on a cap-and-trade system that would "spread the burden evenly and equally" over the economy.
A week ago, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, a Democratic presidential candidate, spoke at the same venue. He blamed automakers for much of their financial problems and said higher fuel efficiency would help them and the country.
"It is neither my place, nor my purpose, to provide a point-by-point rebuttal to last week's speech," Dingell, a longtime friend of the auto industry, said. "I admire Senator Obama's enthusiasm and his desire to focus on solutions. But with all due respect, as the Sopranos would say, I would not travel to Chicago for the purpose of teaching people how to butcher hogs."
Staff writer Sonya Geis in Los Angeles contributed to this report.