WASHINGTON — President Obama will direct federal regulators today to move swiftly on an application by California and 13 other states to set strict automobile emissions and fuel efficiency standards, two administration officials said Sunday evening.
The directive makes good on an Obama campaign pledge, quickly puts his stamp on environmental policy and signifies a sharp reversal of Bush policy. It could empower states to set tougher standards in targeting tailpipe emissions, which are blamed for contributing to global climate change.
Obama stopped short of ordering the agencies to reverse the Bush administration policy, but they are widely expected to do so.
The California law, which was originally meant to take effect in the 2009 model year, requires automakers to cut emissions by nearly a third by 2016, four years ahead of the federal timetable. The result would be an increase in fuel efficiency in the American car and light truck fleet to roughly 35 miles per gallon from the current average of 27.
While Florida is not among the 13 states, efforts to adopt similar standards passed the state Environmental Regulation Commission in December, a hard-fought victory for Gov. Charlie Crist, but have not gotten much traction so far in the Legislature.
Once U.S. regulators act, auto manufacturers will quickly have to retool to produce and sell cars and trucks that get higher mileage than the national standard, and on a faster phase-in schedule. The auto companies lobbied hard against the regulations and challenged them in court.
Beyond acting on the California emissions law, officials said, Obama will announce that he is moving forward with nationwide regulations requiring automakers to increase fuel efficiency standards to comply with a 2007 law — rules that the Bush administration decided at the last minute not to issue. They require that by 2020 new cars and trucks meet 35 miles per gallon, a 40 percent increase over current standards.
Obama will use today's announcement to bolster the impression of a sharp break from the Bush era on all fronts, following his decisions last week to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; tighten limits on interrogation tactics by CIA officers; order plans to withdraw combat forces from Iraq; and reverse financing restrictions on groups that provide or discuss abortion overseas, administration officials said.
He will also order federal departments and agencies to find new ways to save energy and be more environmentally friendly. And he will highlight the elements in his economic plan intended to create jobs around renewable energy.
The announcements will begin a week of efforts to get the economic stimulus plan through Congress. The White House hopes the Senate will confirm Timothy Geithner as Treasury secretary today, and Obama plans to travel to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to lobby for his stimulus package. Obama's aides expect the House to vote on its plan on Wednesday.
But the centerpiece of today's anticipated announcement is Obama's directive to the Environmental Protection Agency to begin work immediately on granting California a waiver, under the Clean Air Act, which allows the state, a longtime leader in air quality matters, to set standards for automobile emissions stricter than the national rules.
The Bush administration denied the waiver in late 2007, saying that recently enacted federal mileage rules made the action unnecessary and 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.
Auto companies said a waiver would require them to produce two sets of vehicles, one to meet the strict California standard and another that could be sold in the remaining states.
The Bush administration's environmental agency director, Stephen Johnson, echoed the automakers' claims in denying California's application, ignoring the near-unanimous advice of agency lawyers and scientists.
The emissions standards are part of an ambitious California plan to reduce emissions of the gases blamed for the heating of the atmosphere. Auto emissions account for more than one-fifth of all such greenhouse gases.
California was joined in its plea by Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, Delaware, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas and Nevada.