Obama to order review of state’s emissions bid

By Zachary Coile, Robert Selna

President Obama, in his first major environmental act since taking office, will order the Environmental Protection Agency today to move swiftly on a request by California and other states to set the nation’s toughest vehicle emissions standards.

Obama plans to make the announcement at a White House ceremony, according to congressional sources briefed on the plan. The move signals a sharp break with the Bush administration, which rejected California’s request to enforce its rules limiting greenhouse gases from cars and trucks.

While Obama’s order only requires the EPA to reconsider California’s request, all sides expect the agency will approve it. His new EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson, must finish a formal review before making the decision, but environmentalists were already cheering the likely outcome.

“These are monumental decisions that will have an immediate impact in reducing global warming pollution in the United States,” said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Just days into office, President Obama is showing America and the world that he will lead our country in a bold new direction to protect the environment and fight global warming.”

Obama’s presidential directive could ultimately transform the entire U.S. auto fleet. If the EPA approves California’s request for a waiver to enforce its rules, any state can opt for either the federal or the state’s emissions standards. Thirteen states have adopted California’s rules, covering about half the nation’s population, and a half-dozen more, including Florida, are considering doing so. Automakers probably would be forced to sell more fuel efficient cars and trucks in every showroom nationwide.

California Sen. Barbara Boxer, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and has lobbied Obama to approve the state’s request, called his expected announcement “more than welcome news.”

“An immediate EPA review of the waiver decision shows respect for California and the 18 other states … who are waiting for the green light to address global warming pollution from motor vehicles,” Boxer said. “When the waiver is signed, it will be a signal to Detroit that a huge market awaits them if they do the right thing and produce the cleanest, most efficient vehicles possible.”

The auto industry opposes California’s rules and has fought a long-running legal battle to block the standards. Automakers have warned of the perils of creating a patchwork of vehicle emissions rules and have lobbied Congress instead for a single national standard.

California’s rules would require vehicles to reduce their greenhouse gases by 30 percent by 2016. The transportation sector is the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state, at about 38 percent of total emissions.

The state’s regulations are much more stringent than even the higher fuel economy standards passed by Congress and signed by Bush in 2007, which requires vehicles to reach an average fuel economy of 31.5 miles per gallon by 2015. The state’s rules require automakers to meet a fleetwide average of 36 miles per gallon by 2016.

Obama’s directive is also expected to force the Transportation Department to complete interim fuel economy standards to implement the 2007 law, which the Bush administration chose not to do. The goal is to speed the shift to more efficient vehicles, and the new rules would be issued by March so automakers would have time to update their fleet for the 2011 model year.

The East Room announcement is expected to be attended by Jackson, top EPA and Transportation Department officials and environmentalists, among others, Capitol Hill sources said.

Obama’s decision is a victory for California leaders, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and California Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols, who wrote letters last week urging the president to take action. Schwarzenegger’s spokesman, Aaron McLear, said Sunday night that the governor was “withholding comment until the president has something to say.”

California’s landmark law limiting greenhouse gas emissions was written by former Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills (Los Angeles County) and passed by the Legislature and signed by then-Gov. Gray Davis in 2002. It was supposed to go into effect starting in the 2009 model year. One thorny issue the EPA may decide is in which model year California’s rules would now take effect to give automakers enough time to transition.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, who was in the Assembly when the law was passed, said Obama’s announcement “represents the beginning of a very different and much more positive relationship between California and the federal government.”

“California did not get a whole lot of attention in the past eight years,” Steinberg said. “This is an important signal that things will be different.”

Derek Walker, director of the California Climate Initiative for the Environmental Defense Fund, said Obama’s move also suggests that the new president rejected the automakers’ assertions that California’s rules would hurt the industry and the economy.

“This is a tremendous out-of-the-gate move by the new president and shows that he is taking a fresh look at environmental and energy policy from the perspective of sound science,” Walker said. “It also shows that he understands the strong nexus between economic stimulus and environmental protection.”