Obama puts the fuel economy pedal to the metal

Bush never stopped fighting California's proposed rules for regulating greenhouse gas emissions. Fut for the new administration, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

By Andrew Leonard

Published May 18, 2009 7:04PM (EDT)

On Tuesday President Obama is expected to announce that tighter fuel economy standards will be accelerated ahead of schedule. Current law requires overall fuel economy to reach 35 mpg by 2020. Obama's directive moves the deadline up four years to 2016.

The Wall Street Journal included an interesting side note:

As part of the agreement, the state of California has agreed to "stand down" from its effort to implement its own greenhouse gas emissions standards for automobiles, one person familiar with the matter said, since the new federal rule would be as stringent as the state's standard.

If true, this is interesting on at least two levels. First, one can only be exasperated at how much time, effort, and money the Bush administration and U.S. automakers wasted in fighting California's attempts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles. When their attempt to have California's laws dismissed in the federal courts failed, they took the unprecedented step of denying California a waiver from the EPA allowing it to set its own standards. As one of his first actions after taking office, Obama directed the EPA to review the waiver denial, but that now seems moot.

More interesting, however, is the question of just how closely the new Fed standards will replicate California's. California's rules were aimed not just at increasing miles-per-gallon fuel economy; they also included restrictions on the amount of all greenhouse gases that could be emitted by cars. If the EPA's new rules do the same, then the EPA is getting directly into the business of direct regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, irrespective of whether a cap-and-trade plan with teeth ever gets passed by Congress.

Viewed thusly, the move could be yet another signal from the Obama administration to moderate Democrats and industrial polluters: Get on board the cap-and-trade train or the EPA will run right over you. Unless, of course, the new regulations do not include the same level of emissions restrictions. In which case it would be California that's getting rolled.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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