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Obama to announce tough national clean-car rules

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will announce tough new nationwide rules for automobile emissions and mileage standards today, embracing rules that California has sought for years over the objections of the auto industry and the Bush administration.

The rules, which will begin to take effect in 2012, will put in place a federal standard for fuel efficiency that is as tough as the California program and impose the first limits on climate-altering gases from cars and trucks.

The effect will be a single new national standard that will create a car and light truck fleet more than 30 percent cleaner and more fuel-efficient by 2016 than it is today, with an average of 35.5 miles per gallon.

The changes won't come cheap. A senior administration official told the Washington Post that the new standards would raise the cost of an average car by $1,300, $600 of which could be attributed to the rules being announced today. The remaining would stem from previous energy policy. Fuel savings would offset much of the higher cost, the official said.

Environmental advocates and industry officials welcomed the new program.

Environmentalists called it a long-overdue tightening of emissions and fuel economy standards after decades of government delay and industry opposition. Auto industry officials said it would provide the single national efficiency standard they have long desired, a reasonable timetable to meet it and the certainty they need to proceed with product development plans.

The industry position represents an about-face after years of battling tougher mileage standards in the courts and in Congress, reflecting the change in the political climate and the industry's shaky financial condition.

"For seven long years, there has been a debate over whether states or the federal government should regulate autos," said Dave McCurdy, president of the Alliance of Auto Manufacturers, the industry's largest trade association. "President Obama's announcement ends that old debate."

McCurdy, a former Democratic congressman from Oklahoma, has been working with Obama and his advisers to resolve the issue since early this year.

The administration's decision resolves a question over California's application for a waiver from federal clean air laws to impose its own, tougher vehicle emissions standards. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have said they plan to adopt the California program.

The new national fleet mileage rule for cars and light trucks of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016 roughly corresponds to the California requirement, which will be shelved as a result of the deal. The current national standard is slightly more than 25 miles per gallon.

The California plan, first proposed in 2002, had been stalled by industry lawsuits and the Bush administration's refusal to grant a waiver from less stringent federal rules, although California has been given dozens of exemptions over the past 40 years.

The program will also end a number of lawsuits over the California standards, officials said.

"This is a very big deal," said Daniel Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign, who has pushed for tougher mileage and emissions standards for two decades with the goal of curbing the gases that have been linked to global warming. "This is the single biggest step the American government has ever taken to cut greenhouse gas emissions."

The administration had faced a June 30 deadline set by Congress to decide whether to grant California's application to put its emissions rules into effect.

One ranking industry official said that the administration wanted to get the new mileage rules in place before General Motors made a decision on a bankruptcy filing, which could happen by the end of this month. The new rules also provide some certainty for Chrysler, which is already under bankruptcy protection, so it can plan its models.

To meet the new standards, auto companies will have to drastically change their product lineups in a relatively short time. For starters, they will probably have to sharply reduce the number of low-mileage models, like pickup trucks and large sedans.

The president's decision will also accelerate the development of smaller cars and engines already under way.

But McCurdy said the industry could meet the new mileage targets using existing technology and improvements in future models. He said that 130 models already get 30 miles a gallon or better on the highway.

by the numbers

35.5 mpg average for cars and light trucks will be required by 2016

27.5 the current mpg standard for cars

30 percent: how much cleaner and fuel-efficient vehicles will be by 2016

Obama to announce tough national clean-car rules 05/18/09 [Last modified: Monday, May 18, 2009 11:34pm]

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