Obama to launch landmark auto emissions standards

The plan will establish nationwide benchmarks for carbon emissions and fuel efficiency.

Kevork Djansezian/AP/File
Traffic moves along the Santa Monica Freeway in Los Angeles in this July 3, 2008 photo. The Bush administration blocked California from imposing its own regulations on greenhouse-gas emissions from automobiles. Now, the Obama administration is using California's template as a national standard.

President Obama is moving to regulate, for the first time, one of the world’s biggest sources of greenhouse-gas emissions: the cars and trucks on US roads.

That plan, as outlined in news reports Monday, would represent a major regulatory shift affecting the environment, a struggling industry, and millions of American consumers.

Mr. Obama is expected to announce the details Tuesday, calling for both a reduction in carbon emissions and a stepped up timetable for improving traditional fuel economy. US fleets will have to average 35 miles per gallon by 2016, four years faster than currently planned. The current average is 27.5 miles per gallon.

The president’s plan is also designed to bring the whole country under a single standard, moving away from a patchwork system that could become increasingly difficult for car manufacturers. California and 12 other states had already attempted to set up their own regulatory standard for greenhouse-gas emissions.

Together, the moves highlight the importance of two priorities for the Obama administration: improving US energy efficiency and acting to control climate change.

At the same time, the effort poses challenges for another key White House goal: reviving the economy. It promises to add to sticker prices at car dealerships at a time when car sales – an important part of the US retail economy – have plunged 40 percent in the past year. And the move will demand new investments by carmakers, even as those firms are shedding tens of thousands of workers and fighting for survival.

“One positive is that they are looking at a federal rule, as opposed to a state-by-state patchwork,” says Rebecca Lindland, an auto industry analyst at IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Mass.

That should simplify planning for the struggling manufacturers, although the cost of the new regulations could mitigate that benefit.

Obama has long argued that the goals of having a greener economy and a thriving one are not contradictory.

In the car industry, he hopes that federal aid will help the automakers fund new technologies, and that federal tax incentives will help consumers buy cleaner cars. In a speech last month in Iowa, he pointed to a new tax credit of up to $7,500 to encourage Americans to buy more fuel-efficient cars and trucks.

“We have to create the incentives for companies to develop the next generation of clean-energy vehicles – and for Americans to drive them, particularly as the US auto industry moves forward on a historic restructuring that can position it for a more prosperous future,” Obama said.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California hailed the plan and her home state's leading role.

“I am very pleased by the reports that the Obama administration has brought together the federal government, the State of California, and the auto industry behind new national automobile-emissions standards that follow California’s lead,” Senator Boxer said in a statement Monday. “This is good news for all of us who have fought long and hard to reduce global warming pollution, create clean energy jobs, and reduce our dangerous dependence on foreign oil.”

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