CLIMATE:

Obama to make White House push on Calif. waiver, CAFE rules

President Barack Obama today will make his first big moves on global warming and energy during a White House event that environmentalists are welcoming as a clear policy break from the Bush administration.

According to the White House, Obama will sign a memorandum instructing U.S. EPA to review his predecessor's decision rejecting California's request to enforce greenhouse gas emission standards for motor vehicles.

Obama also will sign an order instructing 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. The new president will also trumpet pieces of his economic recovery plan designed to create new jobs through greater use of renewable energy and improved electric transmission grids.

"The ceremony will include the first environment and energy actions taken by the president, helping our country move toward greater energy independence," reads a White House invitation sent to supporters yesterday.

California has been pushing since 2002 for the federal EPA's permission so it can enforce a 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.

Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wrote Obama last week urging him to help quickly reverse the Bush-era EPA decision. And Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, filed a petition with the new Obama EPA suggesting it launch a "short supplemental comment period" before granting the state's waiver request (Greenwire, Jan. 22).

Under the Clean Air Act, California is the only state that can enforce its own standards -- but only with an EPA waiver. Thirteen other states have moved to adopt California's standards, and another three have indicated that they will follow if EPA grants the waiver. In all, the 17 states represent nearly half of the U.S. auto market.

Obama's memo requests EPA begin the legal process to reconsider a denial of the waiver, including a new public comment period. Obama officials stressed that the memo does not order EPA to grant the waiver. And they caution that a final decision on whether to reverse the Bush administration's decision could take several months.

Auto industry officials did not respond to requests for comment. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers has long opposed California's request, arguing it would force car makers to boost efficiency substantially above levels already established in federal law. Auto dealers last week also 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.

Obama's directive for the Transportation Department instructs it to meet an April 1 deadline that puts automakers on track to increase fuel economy standards across their fleets by an average of 35 miles per gallon by 2020.

Bush and the Democratic-controlled Congress negotiated the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards in the 2007 energy bill. And DOT under Bush proposed the initial limits but could not complete the rules before Obama's inauguration last week (Greenwire, Jan. 7). Obama's memo directs DOT to finish its CAFE standards for 2011 but then begin a separate rulemaking process for later years that considers a range of legal, scientific and technological issues.

Environmentalists welcomed word of Obama's first moves on climate change and fuel economy.

"President Obama's announcement responds to scientists' warnings to slow greenhouse gas pollution now before it's too late," said Dan Weiss, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "These new policies contrast with President Bush's policy of censoring or ignoring global warming science. The fuel economy measures add to the clean energy investments in his economic recovery package. President Obama has done more in one week to reduce oil dependence and fight global warming than George Bush did in two terms."

"We're thrilled," added Karen Wayland, legislative director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "This signals a new direction in energy and global warming policy. ... We were hoping for great things with the administration, and we're pleased that within the first week this is something we're seeing."

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) also praised the decision. "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," Boxer said in a statement.