White House Is Prepared to Set First National Limits on Greenhouse Gases

By David A. Fahrenthold and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Obama administration on Tuesday formally proposed new fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, a move that signals the first federal limits on greenhouse-gas pollution.

In May, President Obama announced in a Rose Garden ceremony that cars would be held to a higher environmental standard. On Tuesday, officials filled in the details, linking fuel economy to emissions from vehicles.

The net effect would be to require manufacturers to ratchet up fuel economy 5 percent per year. In 2016, new cars and trucks would have to achieve an average rating of 35.5 miles per gallon. Cars currently must average 27.5 miles per gallon; light trucks must average 23.1 miles per gallon.

In an appearance Tuesday morning at a General Motors plant in Lordstown, Ohio, Obama cited the proposed rules as a sign that his administration can find common ground between environmental groups and industry.

"We are launching -- for the first time in history -- a new national standard aimed at both increasing gas mileage and decreasing greenhouse-gas pollution for all new cars and trucks sold in America. This action will give our auto companies some long-overdue clarity, stability and predictability," Obama said. "In the past, an agreement like this would have been impossible -- but this time was different."

Tuesday's announcement marks progress on one piece of the Obama administration's agenda for fighting climate change. While the administration is simultaneously pressing for a bill to cap U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions and for a global climate pact, it is encountering resistance to those efforts both at home and abroad. On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said the Senate may not act on climate legislation until next year.

The proposal announced Tuesday was spurred by a Supreme Court ruling in 2007 that the Environmental Protection Agency has the power to regulate greenhouse gases from tailpipes. Jason Grumet, executive director of the National Commission on Energy Policy, said the EPA is one of several federal agencies now moving to factor climate change into regulatory decisions.

Among the changes proposed is that average fuel-economy ratings of 35.5 miles per gallon would have to be achieved four years sooner than current law calls for. Manufacturers alternately could meet a requirement that their vehicles on average emit no more than 250 grams of carbon dioxide per mile. With current technology, the measures are essentially equivalent.

In a news conference at the White House on Tuesday, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said the proposed regulations would save 1.8 billion gallons of oil between 2012 and 2016, and prevent greenhouse-gas equivalent to the output of 42 million cars. The regulations will now go through a 60-day public comment period.

The National Auto Dealers Association expressed concern that the proposal could prove confusing in practice. But the announcement won praise from both auto manufacturers and environmentalists.

"This is really the road map for automakers to follow," said Charlie Territo, a spokesman for the Alliance of Auto Manufacturers, an industry trade group. He said that changes required by the law would cost the auto industry $60 billion by 2016, but he said he could not provide an estimate for how much they would raise the price of individual cars.

"This is the biggest increase in fuel economy in over 30 years. It's truly historic," said Brendan Bell, of the group Union of Concerned Scientists. Bell said, however, that the proposal contains a complex system of accounting for pollution that could be gamed by automakers. The government has "to watch to make sure that automakers are not using Enron accounting to meet compliance," he said.

The move could bolster the U.S. negotiating position at the upcoming international climate talks in Copenhagen, said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), because "the Obama administration is taking steps to reduce our emissions. It sends a message, 'We're going to do this across our economy in a way that makes sense.' "

As the administration unveiled its proposed rule changes, the Energy Information Administration released a report projecting CO2 emissions from fossil fuels in the United States will have fallen by 6 percent in 2009 because of the recession and a general decline in fossil fuel consumption.

Jeremy Symons, senior vice president for conservation and education at the National Wildlife Federation, noted that while the new standards would help in cutting tailpipe emissions, they would not address emissions by power plants.

"Now we need an equally ambitious plan to clean up smokestacks and shift to renewable, made-in-America energy sources like wind and solar, such as the clean-energy jobs plan passed by the House in June," Symons said.

Staff writers Anne E. Kornblut and Steven Mufson contributed to this report.

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