Image: Traffic on San Francisco Bay Bridge
Marcio Jose Sanchez  /  AP
California's heavy reliance on vehicles, including rush hour scenes like this one over the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, prompted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to ask the federal government for a waiver so that the state could require cleaner cars.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 1/26/2009 1:51:50 PM ET 2009-01-26T18:51:50

Plunging into energy and climate change policies, President Barack Obama on Monday moved to give states a freer hand in curbing greenhouse gas emissions from cars, and to enact tighter fuel-efficiency standards that could remake the auto industry.

Obama stressed that his goal is to work with carmakers on key administration goals: energy independence and combating global warming.

"Let me be clear: Our goal is not to further burden an already struggling industry," Obama said at the White House. "It is to help America's automakers prepare for the future."

"It will be the policy of my administration," he added, "to reverse our dependence on foreign oil while building a new energy economy that will create millions of jobs."

"America will not be held hostage to dwindling resources," he said, adding that the government must work with California and other states — not against them — on tougher climate emissions standards for cars and trucks.

"The federal government must work with, not against, states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," Obama said, adding that "the days of Washington dragging its heels are over. My administration will not deny facts; we will be guided by them."

2011 cars to be higher mpg
He also ordered the Transportation Department to enact short-term rules on how automakers can improve fuel efficiency of their new models based on a 2007 law. The law requires that by 2020, new cars and trucks meet a standard of 35 miles per gallon, a 40 percent increase over the status quo.

Video: Impact on automakers But the Bush administration did not set regulations in support of that law. And it estimated the rules would cost the industry more than $100 billion to implement the changes by 2020.

Obama said he expected his administration to have the standards for 2011 cars ready by March, thus giving the auto industry 18 months to prepare. He called his directive a "down payment" on vehicles that get much better fuel efficiency.

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."

Climate envoy named

Separately, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday appointed an envoy for international climate change issues.

The job went to Todd Stern, who served in a variety of positions during the Clinton administration, including the senior White House representative at the 1997 Kyoto climate negotiations.

“American leadership is essential to meeting the challenges of the 21st century, and chief among those is the complex, urgent and global threat of climate change,” she said at a State Department ceremony.

Stern will serve as the chief U.S. negotiator at United Nations talks on climate change including an upcoming session in Copenhagen as well as with individual nations and groups.

On car emissions, the federal Clean Air Act gives California special authority to regulate vehicle pollution because the state began regulating such pollution before the federal government did. 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.

But in 2007 the Bush administration's EPA denied California's 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.

California's proposed restrictions would force automakers to cut tailpipe emissions of carbon dioxide 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.

Last week, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, sent a letter to Obama asking him to give California and other states permission to implement the tough tailpipe-emission standards. Schwarzenegger said Obama "has a unique opportunity to both support the pioneering leadership of these states and move America toward global leadership on addressing climate change."

In a statement Monday, Schwarzenegger praised Obama's directive, stating that "it is clear that California and the environment now have a strong ally in the White House."

Obama directed the Environmental Protection Agency to re-examine California's case. The formal process will take time but is expected to end up in the states' favor. The Bush administration had rejected the request on grounds that a national fuel-efficiency strategy would work better — the same position the auto industry took.

Industry cites 'patchwork' danger
Automakers contend it would be unfeasible to have to design cars to what they termed "a patchwork" of different standards around the country.

House Minority leader John Boehner agreed, saying that "millions of American jobs will be placed in further jeopardy if automakers are forced to spend billions to comply with potentially dozens of different emissions standards in dozens of different states."

But a spokesman for California's Air Resources Board clarified that California is the only state allowed to seek waivers under the Clean Air Act, and that other states may only follow exactly what California enacts when it is granted a waiver.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. and head of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, countered Monday that a waiver for California would "be a signal to Detroit that a huge market awaits them if they do the right thing and produce the cleanest, most efficient vehicles possible."

As a candidate for president, Obama pledged to overturn the EPA's denial, which marked the first time the U.S. had fully denied California a pollution control waiver under the Clean Air Act, after many previous approvals.

"By beginning this process and directing EPA to review the Bush administration's lack of action, President Obama is turning the federal government into a force for positive change instead of a roadblock," said the Sierra Club's executive director, Carl Pope.

The president on Monday also touted proposals that he says would boost clean energy supplies while also producing badly needed jobs in so-called "green" industries.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Obama reverses Bush policy on climate change

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