WASHINGTON - The Environmental Protection Agency took a major step toward tougher reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks Tuesday by giving California the green light to impose new requirements that could become the national model for combatting tailpipe pollution linked to global warming.
The EPA granted California's long-standing request - denied by the Bush administration - for a waiver to allow it to pursue more stringent air pollution rules than required by the federal government. It cleared the way to implement immediately a 2002 state pollution law requiring new cars to increase their fuel economy 40 percent by 2016.
State regulations to implement the law have been in limbo for five years because the Bush administration refused to provide a waiver required by the federal Clean Air Act. Thirteen other states and the District of Columbia have said they want to impose the same requirements as California once the EPA gave the go-ahead.
"This decision puts the law and science first," EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in a statement, suggesting that Stephen Johnson, her predecessor at EPA, had ignored historic and traditional legal interpretations on how the Clean Air Act should address the issue when he denied the waiver in March 2008.
Granting California's request "is consistent with the Clean Air Act as it has been used for the last 40 years," Jackson said.
"After being asleep at the wheel ... the federal government has finally stepped up," said California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, noting the state first requested the waiver in December 2005.
The California regulation requires automakers to increase the fuel economy of cars and trucks sold in the state by 40 percent to an average of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. Improved auto fuel efficiency results in less carbon dioxide being emitted from vehicle tailpipes because less fuel is burned for every mile traveled.
The EPA decision also is viewed as setting the stage for tougher national vehicle fuel economy requirements promised by President Barack Obama in May when he announced an agreement to push through federal standards at least as stringent as those being enacted in California.
Jackson said the California waiver decision "reinforces the historic agreement on nationwide emission standards" announced by Obama. That agreement has the support of automakers, many of the states and environmentalists. Obama said he wanted nationwide regulations boosting the average fuel economy of new cars and small trucks to be 35.5 mpg by 2016, four years ahead of what Congress required as part of a new energy law in 2007.
But automakers reacted cautiously to Tuesday's action.
"We are hopeful the granting of this waiver will not undermine the enormous efforts put forth to create the national program," Dave McCurdy, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said in a statement. He said the federal approach agreed to in May "moves us towards a policy that ensures that consumers in all 50 states have access to highly fuel efficient vehicles at an affordable price."
But environmentalists said the decision to give California the go-ahead for putting into place its emission requirements was long overdue and essential for developing the national program.
"This is putting the federal seal of approval on California's leadership in cleaning up global warming pollution from our cars, SUVs, pickups and minivans," said David Doniger, director of the Climate Center at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who had sharply criticized Johnson, the Bush administration EPA chief, for repeatedly postponing action and then rejecting the California waiver request, applauded the EPA decision Tuesday. She said it was "putting science and the law back into the driver's seat rather than politics and special interests."
Governors and officials from many of the states ready to adopt the California standard also welcomed the development.
Granting the waiver to California "affirms states' rights to combat global warming," said New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.
In addition to New York, other states that have said they want to follow California's lead are: Arizona, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.
Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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