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Obama To California: Go Forth And Regulate

Well, that's settled. President Obama has no intention of dithering over new automobile fuel-economy standards. The New York Times reports that, on Monday, he'll announce that he's going to tighten federal CAFE standards immediately, as required by law, and will also let California implement its own, even tougher standards:

[Obama] will direct the Department of Transportation to immediately begin drafting automobile fuel-economy regulations to comply with a law enacted in December 2007. Former President Bush delayed implementation of the law and left office saying there was not sufficient time to write the rules.

But the centerpiece of Monday’s East Room announcement is Mr. Obama’s directive to the Environmental Protection Agency to immediately begin work on granting the so-called California waiver, which allows the state, a longtime leader in air quality matters, to set its own standards for automobile emissions. The Bush administration denied the waiver in late 2007, saying that allowing California and the 13 other states the right to set their own pollution rules would result in an unenforceable patchwork of environmental law.

That last paragraph nicely summarizes the controversy here. Automakers have long griped that allowing California and 13 other states to set their own, tighter tailpipe standards will create a nightmarish "patchwork" of rules. But the word "patchwork" (which is right now perched on every auto lobbyist's lips) is a misnomer. There are really just two standards at work—the federal one and the more stringent California one that other states can adopt. That's been the case since 1967, and, as a National Research Council report declared in 2006, California's long-standing ability to dash ahead of the pack has made it "a proving ground for new-emission control technologies," which in turn "has been beneficial overall for air quality by improving mobile-source emissions control."

But if you're interested in culling through the arguments, here's a good summary of the various complaints about the California waiver from the National Automobile Dealers Association, and here's a surprisingly feisty rebuttal from the California Justice Department. Note that many of California's counterarguments boil down to the point that the auto industry is always forecasting Armageddon whenever the state ratchets up its air-quality standards. And doom never materializes. Now, maybe, just maybe, this time around, in the current economic climate, with the Big Three hooked up to a congressional IV, those fears are actually justified. Anything's possible. But it's not surprising that California (and, for that matter, the Obama White House) has become less-than-sympathetic to all this grousing by now.

P.S. If it's hard numbers you want, check out this from Micheline Maynard on what the new mileage standards will be, as well as this from Josh Harkinson on how much gas the United States will likely save.

--Bradford Plumer