WASHINGTON — Reversing a Bush-era decision and honoring a pledge last month, the Obama administration on Tuesday granted California the ability to impose stringent regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles — essentially making the state the first to implement a federal policy aimed at curbing global warming.
In making the decision, the Environmental Protection Agency said it was returning "to its traditional legal interpretation of the Clean Air Act" — a rebuke of the EPA's decision in 2008 to deny California's request.
"EPA finds that California continues to have a need for its motor vehicle emissions program, including the greenhouse gas standards," the agency said in a statement. "EPA also finds that the California program meets legal requirements regarding the protectiveness of public health and welfare as well as technological feasibility."
The waiver was expected after President Barack Obama in May announced a national policy based on California's proposed rule and covering vehicles made from 2012-2016. California welcomed the federal move but continued to seek a waiver.
"When the national program takes effect," EPA said, "California has committed to allowing automakers who show compliance with the national program to also be deemed in compliance with state requirements."
Higher fuel efficiency reduces the amount of carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas linked to climate change, that is released from tailpipes.
Activist: 'Long-overdue waiver'
Environmental groups welcomed the decision.
"U.S. EPA’s long-overdue waiver puts the federal seal of approval on California’s leadership to curb global warming pollution from tailpipe emissions," Roland Hwang, transportation expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. "These standards will play a pivotal role in helping the auto industry transition make the cars we need for America’s clean energy future."
Thirteen other states have adopted California's standard.
California, the most populous U.S. state, had been fighting the EPA over the issue since 2005. The agency's approval was needed before a 2004 state law to combat global warming can go into effect. It would require the fuel efficiency of motor vehicles to increase by 40 percent by 2016 to an average of 35.5 miles per gallon.
Automakers fought California on its emission requirements for years in the courts and in lobbying the Bush administration in Washington. But last May, automakers went along with Obama's proposal for national regulations to speed the development of more fuel efficient automobiles and trucks.
On Tuesday, automakers reacted cautiously to the EPA decision.
"We are hopeful the granting of this waiver will not undermine the enormous efforts put forth to create the national program," said Dave McCurdy, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers in a statement. He said a national requirement to cut greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles "moves us towards a policy that ensures that consumers in all 50 states have access to highly fuel efficient vehicles at an affordable price."
Auto companies had worried about a patchwork of stage regulations on climate-altering vehicle emissions.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.