Bush Administration and Big Auto Outmaneuver California, For Now

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The strategy used by automakers and the Bush administration to minimize an increase in fuel efficiency standards—and to delay implementation of tougher standards—became painfully obvious yesterday. Before the ink was dry on the new energy bill signed by President Bush, the Environmental Protection Agency rejected California’s application for a waiver allowing the state to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles.

The Energy Bill mandates an average fuel efficiency of 35 miles per gallon by 2020, with a phased-in approach beginning in 2011. The California standards would force automakers to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent—roughly equivalent to 43 miles per gallon—by 2016, with cutbacks to begin in 2009. The decision affects 16 states other than California—thus impacting about half the new car market in the United States.

In other words, supporters of greenhouse gas reductions and greater energy security were tossed a bone with the Energy Bill, with the hope that tougher standards supported by at least 17 state governments could be delayed or entirely avoided.

The battle is far from over. The EPA announcement created an uproar from California officials and environmentalists. California Attorney General Jerry Brown and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger followed the EPA denial with an announcement that a lawsuit would be filed to overturn the decision. Rep Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) condemned the EPA’s decision and promised to launch an investigation of how it was reached.

Using the energy bill as the rationale for the decision, EPA Administator Stephen Johnson stated, “I believe that Congress by passing a unified federal standard of 35 mpg delivers significant reductions that are more effective than a state-by-state approach. This applies to all 50 states, not one state, not 12 states, not 15 states. It applies to all 50 states, and that’s great for the economy, for national security and for the environment.”

California Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols called Johnson’s justification “flimsy.” She said, “The Supreme Court told EPA it has to take action on global warming. It affects our health and our environment. It’s not just about fuel economy.” Most environmentalists feel the new energy policy will not have a big enough impact on pollution.

The legal battle is now staged, with automakers and the federal government on one side—and California and other state governments including New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington on the other. California Senator Diane Feinstein said, “The passage of the energy bill does not give the EPA a green light to shirk its responsibility to protect the health and safety of the American people from air pollution.”

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