AUTOS:

Industry backers 'hope' Calif. waiver isn't a done deal

The automotive industry and some of its most vocal backers in Congress today expressed guarded optimism that the White House-ordered review of California's request to regulate auto tailpipe emissions will not result in a decision to grant the waiver.

Michigan Democratic Sen. Carl Levin said he met with new EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson before today's announcement and was assured that there is no preordained conclusion to the agency's review of the waiver request.

"I sure hope that is true," Levin said in a statement, "because a separate California standard will not only create the 'confusing and patchwork set of standards' that President Obama today implied he wanted to avoid, but also, as the California standard is currently drafted, it is discriminatory against U.S.-made vehicles of the same efficiency as the imports."

Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), who along with Levin was part of a group that rallied last month in a failed attempt to secure a congressional bailout for Detroit's Big Three, was less optimistic that the review process would end in anything but the granting of a waiver.

"I am fearful that today's action will begin the process of setting the American auto industry back even further," Voinovich said. "The federal government should not be piling on an industry already hurting in a time like this."

Under the Clean Air Act, California is the only state that can enforce its own standards -- but only with an EPA waiver. If California receives the waiver, other states would then be permitted to enforce the same tailpipe standard. Thirteen other states have moved to adopt the stricter standards, and at least another three have indicated that they will follow if the waiver is granted. In all, the 17 states represent about half of the U.S. auto market.

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 an afternoon briefing, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs stressed that the executive order does not tell EPA to grant the waiver and that the review process would include input from all stakeholders, including carmakers. "What ultimately we'll come up with is something that moves along the twin goals of ensuring a strong manufacturing sector while ensuring we take the necessary steps to" reduce greenhouse gas emissions, he said.

The two largest U.S. trade groups, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, both issued statements that supported implementing a national standard but remained steadfast in their opposition to the California waiver.

"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," said the Auto Alliance.

Auto dealers last week complained that it would not make sense to grant California's request while the federal government is in the middle of extending billions in loans to keep General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC afloat (Greenwire, Jan. 23). After this morning's announcement, they said they would "welcome a close examination" of the California rule.

"Today's announcement provides the president a much-needed opportunity to discuss the unintended consequences by permitting a patchwork state fuel economy rules," said David Regan, National Automobile Dealers Association vice president. "NADA welcomes the administration's analysis of the adverse effects on the national environmental, energy and economic policies, which would result from implementing a state-by-state approach that was conceived and launched without any national analysis."