Muckraker: Grist on Politics

President Obama today signaled a stark departure from Bush-era environmental policies with the signing of executive orders aimed at kick-starting the manufacture of more efficient automobiles.

Obama ordered the EPA to reevaluate a request from California and 13 other states to set automobile emissions standards that are tougher than federal standards. He also directed the Department of Transportation to act swiftly to establish higher fuel-economy standards, starting with model year 2011.

The president called for significant investment in energy and efficiency measures in the economic stimulus package, and affirmed his desire for the United States to take charge on an international climate change treaty. He also pledged to require U.S. automakers to meet a 35-miles-per-gallon fuel-economy standard by 2020, as called for in the 2007 energy bill.

Today’s executive orders are the “first steps on our journey toward energy independence,” Obama said, and would reduce dependence on foreign oil by 2 million barrels a day. Dependence on foreign oil “bankrolls dictators, pays for nuclear proliferation, and fuels both sides of the war on terror,” he said. This is “compounded by the long-term effects of climate change,” he continued, which could result in violence, shrinking coast lines, and environmental catastrophes. “There is nothing new about these warnings. Presidents have been sounding these alarms for decades. Year after year, decade after decade, we’ve chosen delay over decisive action.”

With regard to California’s emissions policy, Obama said the EPA will “determine the best way forward,” taking into account the challenges to the auto industry. The Bush administration and other opponents of California’s request have argued that granting the waiver would create a patchwork of laws across the country that would make rules difficult to enforce. Though he voiced sympathy to that concern, Obama added that “we must help [the auto industry] thrive by building the efficient cars of tomorrow.”

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) sent a letter to Obama last week urging early action on the waiver. The new administration, said Schwarzenegger, “has a unique opportunity to both support the pioneering leadership of these states and move America toward global leadership on addressing climate change.” In her confirmation hearing, new EPA administrator Lisa Jackson indicated that she would reconsider their request. Jackson appeared beside Obama at today’s press conference.

The decision on California’s request will affect at least 13 other states. Arizona, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington have pledged to adopt California’s standards, and similar rules are under consideration in a several other states.

Schwarzenegger issued a statement today praising Obama’s decision. “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,” he said. “My administration has been fighting for this waiver since 2005 and we will not give up until it is granted because we owe it to our children and to our grandchildren to do more than just protect our natural resources, we must also work to improve them so that we leave behind an environment for future generations that is better than it is today.”

Rep. Henry Waxman, the California Democrat who is seen as a key ally for Obama’s climate agenda, said Obama’s move “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.”

Obama also called for the United States to “make it clear that the United States is ready to lead” on climate change, and would “make sure nations like China and India are doing their part.”

“America will not be held hostage to dwindling resources, hostile regimes, and a warming planet,” he concluded, before signing the executive orders. “Now is the time to make tough choices.”

“No single issue is as fundamental to our future as energy,” said Obama. “The days of Washington dragging its heels are over.” In what could be seen as a stark jab at the Bush administration’s equivocal approach to climate science, Obama said, “My administration will not deny facts. We will be guided by them.”

As one might expect, today’s announcements were met with enthusiasm from the environmental community. “In their first week, President Obama and his Green Dream Team have already started a full-court press to create clean energy jobs, promote energy independence and address global warming,” said League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski. “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 fighting global warming.”

“Making cars both cleaner and more efficient will reduce America’s dependence on oil and rev up our fight against global warming,” said Environment America Executive Director Margie Alt. “President Obama signaled that his EPA will partner with the states that have been leading the effort to reduce the pollution that causes global warming. … [T]his announcement will put cleaner cars on the road and America in the fast lane to reducing our dependence on oil, fighting global warming, and kick-starting the clean, green economy.”

Meanwhile, over in the land that time forgot, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Washington’s leading climate change denier, said Obama’s move on the emissions waiver amounts to “environmental thuggery,” according to the Tulsa World.