Obama to Take Steps On Car Fuel Efficiency

President Barack Obama is pushing stronger curbs on greenhouse gases, saying he wants to make it easier for states such as California to adopt tougher fuel-efficiency rules than the federal standard. Video by AP
By Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 26, 2009

President Obama plans to instruct key federal agencies today to reexamine two policies that could force automakers to produce more fuel-efficient cars that yield fewer greenhouse gas emissions, according to sources who have been briefed on the announcement.

The move, which the White House has privately trumpeted to supporters as "the first environment and energy actions taken by the president, helping our country move toward greater energy independence," could reverse two Bush-era decisions that have helped shape the nation's climate policy and its auto market.

Obama will instruct the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider whether to grant California a waiver to regulate automobile tailpipe emissions linked to global warming, sources said, and he will order the Transportation Department to issue guidelines that will ensure that the nation's auto fleet reaches an average fuel efficiency of 35 miles per gallon by 2020, if not earlier.

On Dec. 19, 2007, then-EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson blocked the efforts of California and more than a dozen other states to limit automobiles' carbon dioxide emissions, arguing that President George W. Bush had addressed the issue by signing a law that same day raising the corporate average fuel-efficiency standard to 35 miles per gallon by 2020. But California's tailpipe emissions rules would have effectively required even greater fuel-efficiency increases, by seeking to cut vehicles' greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent between 2009 and 2016, something American automakers have resisted.

The Bush administration never issued near-term guidelines for tighter fuel-efficiency standards: The Transportation Department circulated a proposal last fall that would have required auto companies to build new cars averaging as much as 31.8 miles per gallon by 2015, compared with the current level of 27.5 miles per gallon, but it announced less than two weeks before Bush left office that it would not issue formal guidelines.

Daniel J. Weiss, who directs climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, praised the new administration for pressing ahead with ambitious fuel economy goals.

"President Obama's actions will reduce our oil dependence by speeding the production of the gas-sipping cars of the future," Weiss said. "He understands that oil and gasoline prices will rise with our recovering economy, and more fuel-efficient cars will help families cope with higher prices. And other countries will want to buy our more-efficient vehicles."

Officials at General Motors and Ford said they were not aware of what the announcement would be. The White House declined to discuss the president's planned energy announcement.

Obama, who has consistently urged U.S. automakers to produce more fuel-efficient cars, is likely to accelerate the timeline for raising the nation's corporate average fuel economy for cars and trucks. The Transportation Department guidelines must be issued by April in order to affect the 2011 auto fleet.

Granting a waiver for California to regulate tailpipe emissions would affect nearly half the U.S. auto market. Thirteen other states -- including Maryland -- and the District have already adopted California's proposal, while at least four others have pledged to do so. When the EPA rejected the waiver, Obama issued a statement saying the decision "is yet another example of how this Administration has put corporate interests ahead of the public interest. If the courts do not overturn this decision, I will after I am elected president."

"Not only is the new president a man of his word, but he's making a dramatic break with the Bush administration's climate policy," said Frank O'Donnell, who heads the advocacy group Clean Air Watch. "It's a powerful signal that science -- and the law -- will guide his administration's decisions. This should prompt cheers from California to Maine."

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