WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama took aim Monday at the lofty but long elusive goal of making the nation more energy independent, ordering reviews that could lead to tougher auto emission standards in states and higher pressure on automakers to produce more fuel-efficient cars.
Attacking a Bush administration policy, Obama directed the Environmental Protection Agency to re-examine whether California and other states should be allowed to have tougher auto emission standards to combat a build up of greenhouse gases.
Obama also directed his administration to get moving on new fuel-efficiency guidelines for the auto industry in time to cover 2011 model-year cars.
"For the sake of our security, our economy and our planet, we must have the courage and commitment to change," Obama said in his first formal event in the ornate East Room of the White House.
"It will be the policy of my administration," he said, "to reverse our dependence on foreign oil while building a new energy economy that will create millions of jobs."
California and at least a dozen other states have tried to come up with tougher emission standards than those imposed by the federal government, but Obama said that "Washington stood in their way." The president wants the EPA to take a second look at a decision denying California — and the other states that want to follow its model — permission to set tougher tailpipe emission standards.
More broadly, Obama sought to show he was not waiting to put his stamp on energy policy, which has both near-term implications on the sagging economy and long-range effects on pollution, climate change and national security.
"Year after year, decade after decade, we've chosen delay over decisive action," Obama said. "Rigid ideology has overruled sound science. Special interests have overshadowed common sense. Rhetoric has not led to the hard work needed to achieve results — and our leaders raise their voices each time there's a spike on gas prices, only to grow quiet when the price falls at the pump."
The Clean Air Act gives California special authority to regulate vehicle pollution because the state began regulating such pollution before the federal government got into the act. But a federal waiver is still required; if the waiver is granted, other states can choose to adopt California's standards or the federal ones.
In 2007 the Bush administration's Environmental Protection Agency denied California's waiver request, gaining praise from the auto industry but touching off a storm of investigations and lawsuits from Democrats and environmental groups who contended the denial was based on political instead of scientific reasons.
Obama on Monday directed the EPA to re-examine the decision. That does not yet overturn anything. But still, the states' wanting their own power considered it a victory.
"The federal government must work with, not against, states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," Obama said. He added: "The days of Washington dragging its heels are over. My administration will not deny facts; we will be guided by them."
California's proposed restrictions would force automakers to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent in new cars and light trucks by 2016.
At least 13 other states — Arizona, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington — have already adopted California's standards, and they have been under consideration elsewhere, too.
Under California's approach, car makers would need to boost fuel efficiency in new vehicles to about 36.8 miles per gallon in the states that chose to adopt the California standards.
Automakers, which sued to block the state regulations, argued that it could require dealerships in some states to limit sales of large trucks in order to meet the standards. They have pushed for a single national standard.
Requiring automakers to build cars that get more miles to the gallon will reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from the tailpipes of vehicles.
A law passed by Congress in 2007 requires that by 2020, new cars and trucks meet a standard of 35 miles per gallon, a 40 percent increase over the status quo. But the Bush administration did not set regulations in support of that law.
On Monday, Obama ordered new guidelines in place to start affecting cars sold in 2011.
He also promised a broader, bipartisan review with the auto industry.
Industry officials have also said they would face billions of dollars in new costs to meet the rules at a time when General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC have received billions in federal loans to stay afloat.
The Bush administration estimated the federal fuel economy rules would cost the industry more than $100 billion to implement the changes by 2020.
"Let me be clear: Our goal is not to further burden an already struggling industry," Obama said. "It is to help America's automakers prepare for the future."
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday will appoint a special envoy for climate change as the Obama administration moves to restore America's credentials in environmental policy, said U.S. officials familiar with her decision.