A Belated Victory on Fuel Efficiency

Remember when California tried to set tighter limits on vehiclesâ CO2 emissions than what the federal government required? (They petitioned for a waiver to set their own pollution standards, which theyâre allowed to do under the Clean Air Act if they get federal permission.)

The Bush administration EPA kept insisting that the Clean Air Act didnât allow for regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant â until the Supreme Court told them that, yes, the Clean Air Act does authorize EPA to regulate these climate-damaging emissions. Then EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson went ahead and denied Californiaâs petition, anyway, claiming that a new energy bill would be sufficient. It was widely expected that the denial wouldnât withstand a legal challenge, but it thwarted action for a while longer. 

Now, four months into the Obama Administration, Californiaâs proposed emissions standards wonât just be allowed for that state â theyâll apply to the whole country. Kate Sheppard at Gristmill explains:


President Obama is expected to unveil new fuel-economy standards for automobiles on Tuesdayâthe first major step by his administration to limit planet-warming greenhouse gases. 

The new standards will reportedly raise fleet-wide standards for cars to 42 miles per gallon by 2016, up from 27.5 mpg now.  For light trucks, the required fleet average will rise to about 26.2 mpg by 2016, up from about 24 mpg now.  Ultimately, this will mean a 30 percent reduction in global-warming emissions from new vehicles by 2016, with improvements beginning in the 2011 model year.

The move will push the entire country to meet the aggressive standards proposed by the state of California.  California and 13 other states had requested a waiver from the U.S. EPA that would allow them to set tougher auto-emissions standards than the federal government by requiring cars to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxideâand the only viable way to cut CO2 emissions is to require cars to get better gas mileage.  The Bush administration denied Californiaâs request last year, but Obama directed the EPA to reconsider the petition almost immediately after he took office.

The Obama administration will now officially grant Californiaâs request for a waiver, and at the same time will adopt Californiaâs standard for the whole country.  This means fuel-economy and emissions standards will be combined into one straightforward set of rules.

I canât help thinking that our current climate picture might look slightly less dire right now if California had been granted its waiver three years ago. But at least weâre finally taking a belated step in the right direction.

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What is particularly significant is the inclusion of light trucks. That class of vehicles somehow seemed to get exceptions, until now.

Granted, the new regulations may not have much effect on climate, but it will improve air quality in urban areas. That should help protect public health.

Unfortunately, the way the auto industry is going, it may be that few cars are ever built to the new standards. People are gong to keep their old cars and trucks going as long as they can.