President Barack Obama launched his administration's global warming agenda today during a White House ceremony that included signatures on two executive orders and a broader message that he would methodically work over the next four years to reshape U.S. energy and environmental policies.
"America will not be held hostage to dwindling resources, hostile regimes and a warming planet," Obama said during a 13-minute East Wing address. "We will not be put off from action because action is hard. Now is the time to make the tough choices. Now is the time to meet the challenge at this crossroad of history by choosing a history that is safer for our country, prosperous for our planet and sustainable. Those are my priorities, and they are reflected in the executive orders I'm about to sign."
Obama's directives include instructions for U.S. EPA to review the Bush administration's decision rejecting California's request to enforce greenhouse gas emission standards for motor vehicles. He ordered the Transportation Department to finalize rules this spring that begin the first overhaul to the nation's fuel economy requirements in more than three decades.
And Obama also focused attention on the environmental benefits of a legislative package he hopes to sign into law next month aimed at kick-starting the U.S. economy.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson flanked Obama as he made his first public remarks on energy and environmental issues since last Tuesday's inauguration. Seated in the front row were Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and special White House climate and energy adviser Carol Browner. Several prominent environmentalists also attended the invitation-only event, including David Hawkins and David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council and Gene Karpinski, executive director of the League of Conservation Voters.
In his remarks, Obama took issue with the Bush administration's decision to block the California waiver. The new president also turned back at the auto industry its oft-stated argument that state-led fuel economy policies would cause a "patchwork" of confusing standards for carmakers and consumers.
"Instead of serving as a partner, Washington stood in its way," Obama said. "This refusal to lead risks the creation of a confusing and patchwork set of standards that hurts the environment and the auto industry. The days of Washington dragging its heels are over. My administration will not deny facts; we will be guided by them. We cannot afford to pass the buck or push the burden onto the states."
Anticipating criticism that federal approval of California's effort would hurt U.S. carmakers, Obama insisted, "Let me be clear, our goal is not to burden an already struggling industry. It's to help America's automakers prepare for the future. This commitment must extend beyond the short-term assistance for businesses and workers. We must help them thrive by building the cars of tomorrow and galvanizing a dynamic and viable industry for decades to come."
On the Transportation Department's efforts, Obama said new regulations would serve as a "down payment" on broader efforts to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. The first DOT rule will deal with corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards for 2011. And Obama said he then wants DOT to begin a separate rulemaking process for later years that considers a range of legal, scientific and technological issues.
Obama's announcements require a delicate balancing act as he pushes his administration to act on climate change. Former President George W. Bush's critics on Capitol Hill and in the environmental community often accused the White House of using a heavy hand in dictating EPA's policy decisions on the California waiver and other environmental matters.
White House aides were careful to say that the latest executive order does not tell EPA to grant California's waiver. "It requests that EPA undertake the legal process to reconsider the denial of the waiver, which will include an opportunity for interested parties to comment," a White House statement said. "A final decision by EPA on whether to reverse the Bush decision is anticipated to take several months."
Obama only hinted at some of the more difficult climate and energy battles ahead, including his administration's anticipated push for cap-and-trade legislation that sets greenhouse gas limits on a large segment of the U.S. economy. "My administration will work on a bipartisan basis in Washington and with industry partners across the country to forge a comprehensive approach that makes our economy stronger and our nation more secure," he said.
And Obama acknowledged the international push to craft a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol, for which a December deadline looms for the U.N.-led negotiations.
"We will make it clear that America is ready to lead," Obama said. "To protect our climate and our collective security, we must call together a truly global coalition. I've made it clear we will act, but so, too, must the world. That's how we will deny leverage to dictators and dollars to terrorists. And that's how we will ensure that nations like China and India are doing their part, just as we are now willing to do ours."
California has been pushing since 2002 for the federal EPA's permission to enforce a state law that would require automakers to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from new vehicles by 30 percent by 2016. The Bush administration sat on the state's request for four years before rejecting it last March, citing as legal justification the arrival of new federal automobile efficiency standards.
In statements today, several top officials from the Golden State welcomed Obama's early moves.
"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," said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R). "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."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Obama's push on the California waiver, coupled with implementation of the 2007 energy law, would "steer American automakers to retool their fleets."
"This morning, President Obama signaled that our country can no longer afford to wait to combat the climate crisis and our dangerous dependence on foreign oil," Pelosi said. "He is setting our country on a path led by science and innovation, in a dramatic departure from the past eight years."
"This is a tremendous and long overdue step for energy independence and the environment," added House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). "President Obama is taking the nation in a decisive new direction that will receive broad support across the country."
Environmentalists and some energy analysts also praised Obama's announcements.
"We're delighted that he's keeping his word, not surprised," said Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign. "It signals to the American people that President Obama will tackle global warming."
Gen. Charles Wald, a retired member of the U.S. Air Force and a member of the Energy Security Leadership Council, attended today's White House event. In an interview, he hailed Obama's nudge for DOT to finalize the initial round of fuel economy standards.
"It's a big step, and it's long overdue," Wald said. Obama's move, he said, marks a "first step in decreasing our dependence on imported fossil fuel" from regions whose politics may not be in line with U.S. interests.
"The thing that surprised me is that he did it this early," he said, adding that the president's quick action signals that decreasing fossil fuel dependence will be a top priority during the Obama administration.
Auto industry cautious
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, representing Detroit's Big Three as well as Toyota Motor Co. and Volkswagen AG, and the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, representing 14 international carmakers, including Nissan Motors and Honda Motor Co., have long fought California's request for a waiver.
The two groups have raised concerns over the proposed CAFE requirements, but have said they remain committed to meeting them. Both groups also publicly criticized Bush's decision to leave office without finalizing the interim rulemaking and urged the Obama administration to act quickly to limit the disruption to carmakers, which are in the midst of overhauling their business models in an attempt to combat slumping sales and sagging profits.
In a prepared statement, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said today, "The Alliance supports a nationwide program that bridges state and federal concerns and moves all stakeholders forward, and we are ready to work with the Administration on developing a national approach."
General Motors Corp. said it is "working aggressively on the products and the advance technologies that match the nation's and consumer's priorities to save energy and reduce emissions."
The company added, "We're ready to engage the Obama administration and the Congress on policies that support meaningful and workable solutions and targets that benefit consumers from coast to coast. We look forward to contributing to a comprehensive policy discussion that takes into account the development pace of new technologies, alternative fuels and market and economic factors."
Obama's announcement has drawn the ire of lawmakers from states with strong ties to the automotive industry, many of which spent the end of last year attempting to secure billions in federal aid for GM and Chrysler LLC.
Ohio Republican Sen. George Voinovich, a co-chairman of the Senate's Auto Caucus, raised the concern that Obama's moves could be too much for the already ailing industry to handle. "I am fearful that today's action will begin the process of setting the American auto industry back even further," he said. "The federal government should not be piling on an industry already hurting in a time like this."
Messages left with a number of other members of Congress -- including Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow and Rep. John Dingell, all Michigan Democrats -- were not returned as of press time.
Movement is expected in the courtroom, whichever way Obama's EPA goes.
California already has litigation pending in federal appeals court seeking to overturn the Bush administration's decision -- and judges there likely will want to see how Obama's EPA rules before they issue any decisions. Automakers have also tried to strike California's underlying law, but have lost in each step of the way in federal courts in California, Vermont and Rhode Island.
Becker predicted additional court moves from the auto industry. "The good guys will say that this is a good decision, and the bad guys will say that Godzilla will come down and eat Detroit," he said.
Beyond the two auto-related announcements, Obama today also called for fast action on the roughly $825 billion economic stimulus bill, which contains a suite of energy-related provisions.
Obama wants the measure to help double U.S. renewable energy production capacity over the next three years and has strongly linked his economic and energy agendas, touting the plan's potential to create hundreds of thousands of "green jobs."
Obama reiterated benchmarks he laid out in a weekend address, such as laying down 3,000 miles of transmission lines to help transport renewable power and saving taxpayers $2 billion per year by making 75 percent of federal buildings more energy efficient.
The new president also called for following through on pledges to increase energy security by expanding efficiency and domestic production of alternative energy, saying that presidents dating back to Richard Nixon have vowed action on energy security, but that follow-through in Washington has been lacking.
"This is the boost that our economy needs and the new beginning that our future demands," he said. "By passing the bill, Congress can act where Washington has failed to act, over and over again, for 30 years."
House Democrats plan to bring their version of the measure to the floor this week, while the largely overlapping Senate version is proceeding through that chamber with markups tomorrow in the Senate Appropriations and Finance committees. Lawmakers hope to send a final package to Obama by mid-February.
The bills contain tens of billions in energy-related spending, plus between $20 billion and $30 billion in energy-related tax incentives. Provisions in one or both of the measures includes $6 billion to make federal buildings more efficient, $8 billion on loan guarantees for renewable power and transmission projects that can begin construction relatively soon, and extended and expanded tax credits for renewable power, efficiency improvements to existing homes, and other areas. The legislation also includes funding for highway and mass transit projects.
Senior reporter Ben Geman contributed.