Obama gives California, other states right to adopt tougher air standards

US President Barack H. Obama signed memorandums on Jan. 26 granting California and other states the right to raise air quality standards above the national level and ordering the Department of Transportation to establish higher fuel efficiency requirements for automakers in the 2011 model year.

The states had asked for authority to adopt more stringent air pollution regulations previously but were turned down by the Bush administration, Obama noted. "Instead of serving as a partner, Washington stood in their way. The days of Washington dragging its heels are over," he said.

The president called the memorandums "a down payment on a broader and sustained effort to reduce our dependence on crude oil." Two California Democrats who chair congressional committees related to energy and the environment immediately applauded the action.

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer called it "more than welcome news." She said that the states seeking the federal regulatory waiver represent more than half the total US population, and that she would work closely with Lisa P. Jackson, the new Environmental Protection Agency administrator, to make certain the California waiver moves forward quickly.

"This is a tremendous and long overdue step for energy independence and the environment. President Obama is taking the nation in a decisive new direction that will receive broad support across the country," noted Henry A. Waxman, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

'A historic win'

In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said on Jan. 26 that he also hoped federal regulators would move quickly on the matter. "With this announcement from President Obama less than a week into his administration, it is clear that California and the environment now have a strong ally in the White House. Allowing California and other states to aggressively reduce their own harmful tailpipe emissions would be a historic win for clean air and for millions of Americans who want more fuel-efficient, environmentally-friendly cars," he said.

The American Petroleum Institute immediately criticized Obama's action on the states' request for a federal regulatory waiver. "Creating a patchwork regulatory structure across multiple states would most likely impose higher costs on consumers, slow economic growth and kill US jobs. The oil and natural gas industry already is doing its part: Since 2000, it has invested $42 billion into zero and low-carbon research and development. That's 45% of all such spending by US companies and the federal government combined," it said in a Jan. 26 statement.

Environmental organizations applauded Obama's move. "For too long, Washington has taken a back seat to California, 13 other states and the District of Columbia that have long understood the solution to global warming and job creation are one and the same. This action will help the entire country benefit from their foresight," said Steven Biel, global warming campaign director at Greenpeace.

"Giving states the power to regulate tailpipe emissions and moving forward on a national increase in fuel efficiency are the bold and necessary moves we expected from President Obama, who campaigned on the issue of fuel efficiency and global warming. These moves, coupled with investments to double renewable energy generation, improve our power grid and increased home energy efficiency, will create jobs and lessen our dependence on fossil fuels," said Gene Kapinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters.

Other groups' reactions were mixed. "President Obama has done more in one week to reduce oil dependence and fight global warming than President [George W.] bush did in eight years. His actions today respond to scientists' urgent warnings to reduce global warming pollution now before it's too late. These fuel economy measures come on top of $90 billion of clean energy investments in his economic recovery package," said Daniel J. Weiss, a senior fellow and climate strategy director at the Center for American Progress.

Thomas J. Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research, said that the California Air Resources Board has estimated that its proposed automobile emissions standards would add at least $1,050 to the cost of each car. "Few states depend more on others for energy than California. Few states ask their citizens to pay more for their electricity. Today's announcement ensures that working class Californians also will have a harder time affording cars in the future," he said.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com

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