In yet another repudiation of the Bush administration, President Barack Obama on Monday ordered the government to investigate whether California and other states can set higher auto emission standards than the national limits. He also directed the Transportation Department to work with automakers to make more fuel-efficient cars by the 2011 model year.
Allowing California to adopt its preferred standards – blocked by the Bush administration — could clear the way for Obama and Congress to impose tougher standards nationwide.
Obama tied environmental and energy issues to national security and the economy before signing two orders reversing his predecessor’s policies.
“The days of Washington dragging its heels are over,” Obama said. “My administration will not deny facts; we will be guided by them. We cannot afford to pass the buck or push the burden onto the states.”
The president made his announcement in the East Room, his first appearance in the grand space just off the White House’s front entrance, in front of 100 invited guests representing industry and the environment. Present were officials from the Ocean Conservancy, Wal-Mart, the Sierra Club, and the Auto Alliance. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson joined the president as he spoke for about 10 minutes and took no questions from reporters.
“No single issue is as fundamental to our future as energy,” Obama said. In terms of national security, he added, “America will not be held hostage to dwindling resources, hostile regimes and a warming planet.”
Obama said that Washington’s “refusal to lead” on climate change had created a “patchwork” of efforts by the states, which is precisely the language the auto lobby used in opposing the California emissions standard.
Chatting with reporters afterward, LaHood downplayed the degree of push-back likely to come from Detroit. “The car manufacturers knew this was coming,” he said. “I don’t think you’re going to see them get a lot of heartburn over this.”
In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has lobbied heavily for the change and outlined his request in a letter to the new president last week.
Schwarzenegger, a Republican who is term-limited out in 2010, lavished praise on the new Democratic president.
“With this announcement from President Obama less than a week into his administration, it is clear that California and the environment now have a strong ally in the White House,” Schwarzenegger said in a statement. “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.”
At least 13 other states have vowed to adopt similar standards if California wins its waiver and bolsters standards.
Automakers, both foreign and domestic, have argued in the past that California’s proposal could force them to make different car models across the country – a costly proposition, they say.
In a statement, General Motors suggested it’s not ready to go along with state-by-state emissions standards like California’s, saying the company would “support meaningful and workable solutions and targets that benefit consumers from coast to coast.” The company also said any solution must take into account how quickly new technologies can be put into the marketplace, along with “market and economic factors.”
Obama’s order comes as the U.S. auto makers are still struggling to turn themselves around – and places a new burden on them as they fight to survive. GM announced a fresh round of layoffs and factory furloughs on Monday, having already lowered its 2009 sales forecast earlier this monh. Chrysler just asked its dealers to swallow cost cuts in hopes of proving its viability to Congress.
Congress gave GM and Chrysler a combined $13.4 billion in federal loans, and the companies may still ask for more help after March. Both must submit restructuring plans to Congress that convince lawmakers the companies can return to profitability.
A spokesman for Ford Motor Co. referred questions to the Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group of 11 auto makers, including all three American companies. The Alliance did not immediately return requests for comment, but in the past the group has opposed California’s proposal.
Jonathan Martin contributed to this story.