Obama seems to be laying foundation for federal auto emissions standard

WASHINGTON – By signaling Monday that he’ll let California and other states regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, President Barack Obama appears to be laying the groundwork for a single federal carbon standard for vehicles.

Such a standard is already in force in Europe and Japan. Crafting a national rule would please environmentalists, but surprisingly could also satisfy the automobile industry, which has argued that trying to comply with a California greenhouse-gas rule in addition to a federal mileage standard would be cumbersome and costly.

Allowing California and 13 other states to enforce the tailpipe rules could amount to a live test run for a federal greenhouse-gas regulation, which would likely be written by the Environmental Protection Agency under authority granted it by the Clean Air Act, observers say.

“Today I’m announcing the first steps on our journey toward energy independence, as we develop new energy, set new fuel-efficiency standards and address greenhouse gas emissions,” said Obama, who signed an executive order asking the EPA to re-evaluate a proposal by California and 13 other states to enforce their own tailpipe emissions standards. “The federal government must work with, not against, states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Obama also instructed the Department of Transportation to implement new federal fuel economy standards and touted some $90 billion in clean-energy spending in the massive stimulus bill pending in Congress, including an apparent tenfold increase in federal assistance for the development of super-efficient automobiles.

In order for California to legally regulate greenhouse gas emissions, it needs a waiver from the EPA. In December 2007, the Bush administration refused to grant it. The news that the Obama administration ordered the EPA to reconsider was warmly received in both Sacramento, Calif., and Washington.

“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,” said California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. “It would be great to actually do this nationwide so car that manufacturers don’t just have two standards but that they only have one.”

Some worry, however, that the high bar set by the California rules comes at an inopportune moment and could further damage the financially troubled U.S. auto industry, which has already thrown itself at the mercy of Washington.

The California rule requires a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2016 from 2002 levels, and likely even further reductions after that. One study indicates that by 2020, carmakers would have to meet a 42.5 mile per gallon average under the California emissions standard, compared to 35 mpg under federal mileage rules.

Shortly after Obama announced the orders Monday, his secretary of state named the nation’s first special envoy to negotiate global climate-change agreements.

Staff writers Christi Parsons in Washington and Marc Lifsher in Sacramento, Calif., contributed to this report.

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