"This is a very good day," says environmental activist Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign at the Center for Auto Safety. "We won."
On January 26, President Barack Obama signed an executive order directing the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider its refusal to grant California a waiver to regulate tailpipe-based greenhouse gas emissions. "California has shown bold and bipartisan leadership in its efforts to set bold, 21st century standards, and over a dozen states have followed its lead," Obama said. "But instead of serving as a partner, Washington stood in their way."
The executive order does not simply grant the waiver. The EPA, now headed by Obama appointee Lisa Jackson, has to go through a formal review process that includes a 30-day public comment period. Becker said the waiver would probably be granted in April or May.
The Sierra Club was celebrating, too. According to Ann Mesnikoff, senior representative of the club's global warming and energy program, "What President Obama did today was what he promised to do, and reflects his emphasis on science and sound policy. California has been waiting for years with 13 other states and the District of Columbia to move forward with greenhouse gas standards for motor vehicles."
The auto industry has long opposed granting the waiver -- and has previously sued to prevent it from being implemented. But it now seems resigned to working with the Obama administration. Dave McCurdy, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents 11 carmakers, called for "a nationwide program that bridges state and federal concerns and moves all stakeholders forward..." McCurdy criticized the "three voices" -- including the EPA, California's Air Resources Board and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration -- that make policy on fuel economy and carbon emissions.
Gloria Bergquist, a spokesperson for the Alliance, said that the Obama administration may be "opening the door" to a single comprehensive solution that "can bridge what the automakers, the federal government and the states all want. They had the EPA and the Department of Transportation together in the same room." Does a lawsuit remain a possibility? We never speculate on legal strategy," Ms. Berquist said.
The industry contends that the California law requires it to build fuel-efficient cars, and only the federal government has authority to set such policy. But that argument has not prevailed. "The industry's strategy has been to sue in every jurisdiction, but so far they've lost in every one," Becker said. "The EPA's own lawyers said they would lose in court."
Automakers are saying they now want to move forward. "We're ready to engage the Obama administration and the Congress," said Greg Martin, General Motors' Washington spokesman. "We look forward to contributing to a comprehensive policy discussion."
Honda, which already makes the kind of small cars that the California greenhouse gas rules would presumably require, had a muted reaction to the Obama decision. "Yes, our company is saying that we're looking for a single national standard," said Edward B. Cohen, Honda's Washington spokesman. "But granting the waiver does not preclude that in the future. We anticipate that the EPA will get something rolling."
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