Obama gives US states an open road to tighten emissions standards, and orders more fuel efficient cars

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Publish date: January 25, 2009

Written by: Charles Digges

President Obama Monday directed federal regulators to move swiftly on an application set forth by California and 13 other states to set strict automobile emission and fuel efficiency standards, making good on a campaign pledge and signifying a sharp reversal of Bush administration policy.

Granting California and the other states the right to regulate tailpipe emissions under the Clean Air Act is one of the most emphatic actions Obama has taken in his first six days in office to quickly put his stamp on environmental policy. Obama also said that car makers would be required to have more fuel-efficient vehicles on the road by 2011.

The new US administration hopes to achieve energy savings of up to two billion dollars per year, as well as a reduction of emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases blamed for global warming in its proposed initiatives. Obama has reiterated since winning the presidency that he will slash greenhouse gas emissions in the United States by 80 percent by 2050.

The tenor of Obama’s environmental announcement Monday morning was well pitched, concentrating not just on the environment for the environment’s sake, but by encouraging environmental responsibility as a necessary weapon against both the economic crisis, and enemies of US security.

Positive reaction on the Obama initiatives from the environmental sector was immediate.

“The leadership of the United States is critical in the international effort to improve energy efficiency and to prevent climate change,” said Jonathan Temple, Director of Bellona USA.

“We applaud President Obama’s action to tackle these important global challenges.”

In his initiatives, the president asked his Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) chief, Lisa Jackson, to reconsider California’s request for a waiver to begin a state programme aimed at cutting gases tied to global warming by 30 percent by 2016.

The Bush administration had denied the request by saying that recently enacted federal mileage rules made the action unnecessary and that allowing California and other petitioners the right to set their own pollution rules would result in an unenforceable patchwork of environmental law. Automakers also opposed the new rules, saying they would have to build different kinds of cars for sale in California.

In a late morning event televised nationally in the United States from the White House East Room, Obama issued a directive to the EPA to immediately begin work on granting the California waiver, which allows the state – long in the vanguard on environmental matters – to set its own standards for automobile emissions.

California has already won numerous waivers for controls on emissions that cause smog, as opposed to global warming.

Obama also ordered federal departments and agencies to find new ways to save energy and be more environmentally friendly. He also highlighted the elements in his $825 billion economic stimulus plan that are intended to create jobs around renewable energy.

"I want to be clear from the beginning of this administration that we have made our choice: America will not be held hostage to dwindling resources, hostile regimes, and a warming planet, he said.

Obama renewed his promise to make the United States a leader in the fight against global climate change, and said the reversal of dependence on foreign oil will create “millions” of new jobs domestically in the renewable energy sector.

“That’s how we will deny leverage to dictators and dollars to terrorists,” Obama said.

“Our goal is not to further burden an already struggling industry, it is to help America’s automakers prepare for the future,” Obama said. “We must ensure that the fuel efficient cars of tomorrow are built right here.”

Obama said job cuts by companies such as Microsoft Corp., Intel Corp. and UAL Corp. demonstrate the urgent need for the economic stimulus program being debated in Congress.

Obama also said that Hillary Clinton, his secretary of state, will name Todd Stearn, a former Clinton White House official, as her special envoy on climate change, underscoring the administration’s promise to make global warming a foreign policy priority.

“These are nice pens,” said Obama, before signing the orders, “Though they are a little hard to open.”  

The first to assail the initiatives spoke for the House Republican leader John Boehner.

“And now they are being forced to spend billions of dollars to comply with California’s emissions standards, instead of using that money to save American jobs.”

“We would need a major technology breakthrough immediately,” Bergquist said.